Employees and Cronies Get Raises While Pools and Parks Get Cuts
Westchester County’s Sprain Ridge pool in Yonkers was closed for the summer in 2011 and will be closed again this summer. It needs $500,000 in repairs, which the county claims it does not have. At the same time, County Executive Rob Astorino gave $640,000 in raises to various aides and political allies, some of whom were already making more than $100,000 a year. Some of the individual raises were more than $60,000, more than doubling the salaries of the recipients.
This summer the county’s Tibbetts Brook Park pool, also in Yonkers, which was converted to a water park without an actual swimming area, will also start charging $5 for parking, in addition to the $8 entrance fee for persons over 12 years old. This is a hardship for residents, some of whom have incomes among the lowest in the county, and little more to look forward to than to cool off at the pool on a hot day. For all of Astorino’s constant talk of keeping down the costs of government, this seems to send the opposite message.
When I first noticed the small sign outside the Sprain Ridge pool about its closing, in April 2011, I wrote several letters and e-mails to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation; my county legislator, Bernice Spreckman; Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins; and Astorino himself. I protested, calling it a serious quality of life issue. Because of the current economic situation, I wrote, people have fewer opportunities for recreation, and a pool may be one of the only relatively inexpensive options.
Many people take free or cheap access to parks for granted. County residents, however, are charged three times for access to the parks and pools: through their property taxes, through the mandatory park passes and again through admission and parking fees.
In fact, a recent study by the nonprofit Friends of Westchester County Parks found that the parks create $183 million annually in regional economic benefits, about five times more than the county spends. That includes such intangibles as attracting higher-income professionals, especially those ages 22 to 35. So it would seem that offering more services and accessibility, rather than less, would benefit the county and its residents.
My letters and e-mails received the predictable responses (none from Astorino himself) about budgetary constraints, but no explanation of why raises were awarded at the same time.
Linda Lovallo, a parks spokeswoman, wrote that “it was necessary for Westchester County Parks to balance its services with the ability of taxpayers to pay for them.” She said the county projected a $100 million deficit in 2012, and had to balance operating the pools against providing essential services such as day care, social services and bus service. She added that the pool was “in dire need of significant repairs. It was not economically responsible and feasible to temporarily fix the facility for one season.”
Jenkins said it was scheduled to be closed in 2010 and reopened in 2011, but the Astorino administration failed to approve a capital project to fix it. He said the board intended to restore the funding, but that has not happened.
The legislators and parks department also directed me to “several alternatives,” including the county’s other pools and beaches in Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, White Plains, Rye and Croton-on-Hudson.
There is talk of converting the Sprain pool to another water park if and when it reopens, which would probably eliminate lanes for actual swimming anywhere in a Yonkers park. The county says attendance at the Saxon Woods pool in White Plains was 80,000 while the Sprain pool had only 50,000, which, for some people, was part of the attraction: fewer people, with a grassy area of relative quiet. Obviously, many of them now crowd into Saxon Woods; on hot summer weekends it is filled to capacity and turns people away.
Moreover, it has had inadequate parking since most of the parking lot was converted to a soccer field a few years ago. Overflow parking is available about a mile away in a corporate parking lot leased by the county, and small vans shuttle patrons to the pool, about a dozen at a time. That process can take a half-hour or more, or patrons can walk, in temperatures approaching 100 degrees.
At the time of my letters in 2011, the issue of raises had not yet surfaced. About a month later, information obtained by the Journal News under New York’s Freedom of Information law detailed several rounds of raises that Astorino gave to county personnel. Among them:
– The director of economic development and the communications director/senior adviser got $18,000 raises, bringing their salaries to $155,245, approved by the Board of Legislators.
– Philippe Gille, a voting machine technician with the Board of Elections who previously worked for former County Executive Andrew O’Rourke and former Yonkers Mayors John Spencer and Phil Amicone, was promoted to deputy commissioner of social services. He got a $62,700 raise, bringing his salary to $127,125.
– George Oros, who had a $49,200 part-time job as a county legislator, was hired full-time as Astorino’s chief of staff, at $155,245.
– The wife of the county attorney and chairwoman of the Mount Pleasant Republican Party went from a program specialist to Republican deputy commissioner, a raise of $51,230, to $118,965.
– A Board of Elections commissioner received a $36,280 raise, to $155,245.
– Jenkins himself authorized nearly $75,000 in retroactive raises for his chief of staff, finance director, director of communications, board clerk and several aides. (Why, you may ask, does a county legislator need such a large staff?)
– A Board of Legislators clerk was given $20,338 more, to $135,000.
– The board’s press secretary was promoted to director of communications, which carried a $17,000 raise, to $85,000.
The complete list was long, and several of the appointees and beneficiaries coincidentally were related to other county officials. The reason given for many of these raises was increased job responsibilities. Out here in the real world, however, people who are lucky enough not to lose their jobs routinely have more work given to them, without any salary increase, let alone more than 100 percent, and have to be thankful they still have jobs.
On May 30, 2012, Astorino held a “Tele-Town Hall,” inviting residents to phone in with questions. I called and submitted my question about raises to one of the screeners, knowing full well that it would never even reach Astorino. After all, if you denied tens of thousands of lower- and middle-income residents the swimming pool they sorely needed, and claimed it was because it needed $500,000 in repairs, but then turned around and gave $640,000 in raises to your cronies, you probably wouldn’t want to take any questions on that either.
As Astorino suggested on the air, I submitted the question to him for later follow-up. An assistant sent me an e-mail about budget considerations, similar to the one the parks department had sent in 2011, even using some of the same phrases. Again, no answer about the raises.
It is ironic enough that the Friends of Westchester Parks study showed the economic wisdom of funding the county parks; what’s worse is that for some reason, the group recently saw fit to give Astorino a “Best Friends Award” for “vision and leadership in keeping Westchester parks clean, green and growing.”
And now, patrons are discovering that the austerity budget means still more programs are disappearing, including the Lasdon Park summer concert series, movies at Kensico Dam Plaza and the open gym at the County Center.
It’s easy for people to say of government, “We’re paying more and getting less,” and they may or may not be able to cite actual figures (especially considering perennial arguments about whether we even need a county government). But when they cannot even get answers to their queries and concerns, the truth is self-evident. On the other hand, it’s inconceivable to me what legitimate excuse for this any answer could provide.
Joseph P. Griffith, a freelance writer in Yonkers, has been a newspaper reporter and editor for several decades. He has written extensively about real estate and Westchester County for The New York Times and Gannett Newspapers, and is the author of books on topics including endangered species, film and China.