Says county remains strong despite significant budget challenges;
Repeats pledge not to raise county property taxes next year
Responding to pleas from residents to make Westchester more affordable, County Executive Robert P. Astorino used his first State of the County address tonight to give a candid assessment of why the county is facing a projected deficit of $166 million in 2011 – and how the county can close the gap without raising taxes and still preserve essential services.
“Closing a $166 million budget deficit would require a 30 percent tax hike,’’ Astorino said. “That’s beyond unacceptable. I was elected to stop spiraling tax hikes. I am committed to doing just that. In the fall, I will submit a budget to the Board of Legislators that is balanced and has a zero percent increase in the county tax levy.”
Astorino urged his partners on the Board of Legislators to join him in putting a budget together for 2011 that does not raise taxes.
“It won’t be easy. It will require broad sacrifice. But it must be done,” he said. “The challenge is to make the tough calls and be willing to endure short-term pain and disruptions so that long-term solutions, which will allow the county to continue to provide services to those who need them the most, can emerge and take hold. As county executive, I am committed to doing just that.”
Astorino, who took office Jan. 1, delivered his speech from the Legislative Chambers of the Board of Legislators in White Plains. The speech covered three broad areas: the county’s people, its problems and Astorino’s plans to put the county on a firm footing for the future. In laying out a plan for the coming year, he said his priorities would be to protect essential services, promote economic growth and provide tax relief.
Because of the financial crisis, Astorino offered no new proposals for spending. But he did announce one major savings initiative: a financial-incentive package to encourage longtime employees to voluntarily leave their jobs. It is estimated that beginning in 2011 the incentive package would save between $6.8 and $19.1 million a year, depending on the number of employees who participate.
Astorino also unveiled a proposal that he is working on with MTA Chairman and President Jay Walder to have New York City extend one of its Manhattan express routes to include stops in Yonkers as a way of largely replicating Westchester’s BxM4C express route to Manhattan, which because of budget cuts is facing elimination. Connections to bus stops in Greenburgh would also be part of the plan.
“There are still a number of details to work out,” Astorino said. “But the talks are very promising at this point, and they demonstrate the importance of collaboration when it comes to finding ways to do more with less money.”
In December, the Spano administration and the Board of Legislators cut $3.6 million in funding to the Bee-Line bus service. Over the past two years, the state has reduced operating assistance by $4.2 million and the Governor’s proposed budget eliminates an additional $3.6 million, bringing total reductions to $11.4 million.
On other budget matters:
Astorino said a decision is near on a proposal to have the county switch from its current self-insured health plan administered by POMCO to the New York State Health Insurance Plan, commonly known as NYSHIP. Such a shift would provide employees with similar benefits while possibly saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
Astorino renewed his request to the legislators to act on his proposal to start having employees contribute to health care insurance. Westchester is only one of four counties in New York State that do not require employees to contribute to the cost of their health care.
Other savings proposals that are part of Astorino’s deficit-reduction plans include a pay freeze for employees, salary cuts and furloughs. These measures would all need either union or legislative approvals or both. Astorino urged the unions to make concessions to minimize layoffs, which could number as many as 1,600 under a worst-case scenario.
“Jobs for savings, that’s the offer,” he said. “Cutting programs and cutting jobs will be the hardest thing I do for the next four years…. Painful decisions lie ahead. But I will make them and make them with the overall good of the county in mind.”
Already since taking office, the Astorino administration has proposed a series of initiatives designed to save taxpayers $16 million this year and beyond as a down payment on closing the budget shortfall in 2011.
The county executive said that Westchester’s current financial predicament is largely the result of three factors:
Too much spending: For much of the last decade, county spending outpaced inflation fueled by grants and aid from Washington and Albany that made it easy for past administrations to “just say yes” to funding requests for programs.
Too little revenue: Since the onset of the recession, county revenues from the sales tax and state and federal sources have fallen dramatically as consumers and governments have been forced to tighten their belts.
Too many unfunded mandates: Pensions and Medicaid are two prime examples. In the case of pensions, Westchester’s costs will more than double from $55 million this year to a whopping $117 million in 2013. The county’s Medicaid costs will rise from $204 million this year to $222 million in 2013.
In the course of his speech, Astorino paid special tribute to several county residents who he said epitomize the “talent and spirit” of county residents and employees. These included Gina Maher, the inspiring coach of the Irvington Lady Bulldogs who led her team to the state championship; County Police Officer Gerard Cole and Yonkers Police Officer Kevin MacDonald, who on March 30 came to the rescue of a 77-year-old man who was trapped on the flooded Bronx River Parkway; and The Rev. Franklyn Richardson, who for 35 years has served as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon and has worked tirelessly to promote social justice and prevent violence.
He also paid homage to the memory of three servicemen from Westchester who died in action in Iraq or Afghanistan since the last State of the County address: John J. Malone, a Marine from Yonkers; Eric Jones, a Marine from Pound Ridge; and Gifford Hurt of Yonkers, a soldier in the Army.
Despite the grim picture of the county’s finances, Astorino concluded his speech on an optimistic note, saying: “The history of our county, which dates back to before the founding of our country, has always been full of tests for its citizens: Revolutionary, Civil and World Wars; financial panics, recessions, and depressions; and natural disasters and medical epidemics. These crises of the past put our current state of affairs in perspective. And what was true then … is true today: The residents of Westchester County have always seized their moment in history by attacking opportunities and problems with a spirit forged with energy, creativity, courage, perseverance, good will and most of all a commitment to make things better for the next generation. The year ahead holds difficult challenges for us. But none so tough that they cannot be overcome.”
SOURCE: Press Release