Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said issues such as runaway spending and high taxes are what prompted him to run for his current office in 2009.
To that end, the county’s tax levy has decreased by 2 percent the past two years and the county budget has decreased by 7 percent during that same period.
Still, as revenue streams continue to decrease and costs continue to rise due to unfunded mandates imposed by the state and federal government, Astorino believes more work needs to be done.
“As a lot of you know, it is very hard to live in Westchester these days,” Astorino told a crowd of about five dozen people at the Richard J. Daronco Town House in Pelham Wednesday. “Taxes are driving people out, businesses can’t make it and so we’ve got to make tough decisions to turn this ship around and get rid of the highest taxed county in America label.”
Astorino came to Pelham as part of his “Ask Astorino” tour, which are a series meetings designed to get input from residents in different communities. A meeting was held in North Salem in June and Astorino hopes to schedule monthly meetings in communities throughout the county.
“We definitely have our issues that we’re concerned with and these issues, a number of them are tax relief, the constant ever expanding government in the county and in the state,” Pelham Town Supervisor Peter DiPaola said at the start of the meeting. “And as a result from all of that, we wind up with unfunded mandates that are put down on the homeowner and we all suffer from the burden it puts on us. These are the issues the county executive has vowed to fight since he was elected.”
Astorino said his staff and commissioners have three goals: protecting taxpayers, preserving essential services and promoting economic growth.
Astorino said he has tried achieving the first goal by cutting spending. But he said controlling future budget increases will become more difficult as state and federal aid to the county continues to decrease or remain flat.
Unfunded mandates from the state, which make up 82 percent of the county's tax levy, also causes the budget process to become more difficult. Medicaid, which carries $216 million bill, and employee pensions, which carry a nearly $80 million bill, are two of the biggest culprits, according to Astorino.
“You give one dollar to the county, 82 cents goes right up the Thruway to Albany for their programs,” he said. “So that leaves 18 cents out of your dollar for county programs.”
He said the only way the county can make up these budget shortfall is by raising taxes, making cuts to county programs and services, or if the state makes reforms to the way it handles Medicaid and pensions.
“We are being crushed on a local level by all of these bills that are coming due,” Astorino said. “Not in 10 years. Now.”
Affordable Housing Settlement
Astorino also spoke about the county’s affordable housing settlement.
In 2006, the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York brought a federal lawsuit that claimed the county failed to live up to its obligation to provide affordable housing and address issues of racial segregation in its housing markets.
That suit eventually led to a $63 million settlement in 2009 that requires the county to build 750 units of affordable housing in the county's predominantly white communities, including Pelham, and to market those units to the nine counties surrounding Westchester.
“There are many reason why I oppose this settlement as candidate, the same reasons I object to them now,” Astorino said. “But I’m in officer and I’m going to comply with the settlement whether I like it or not. And the issues that I disagreed with back then are the same issues are all coming back to haunt us today and we’re back in federal court because of them.”
Astorino said he disagreed with the portion of the settlement that requires the county to market affordable housing units to minority populations outside of the county. He said Westchester County residents shouldn’t be forced to compete for the housing units with people from outside.
He also accused the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development of going beyond the four corner of the settlement by asking the county to analyze the communities named in the suit to determine if their zoning codes are an impediment to affordable housing.
Astorino said the zoning codes have already been reviewed and analyzed. He also said the federal government’s definitions are too broad and would result in every community’s zoning be deemed inadequate.
“They want us to sue our municipalities to break up their zoning,” Astorino said. "We have said absolutely not. There is no logical reason for it and we had a professor from Pace who is very well regarded with zoning and he analyzed this zoning and said there is no segregation. ”
Another area that Astorino believes HUD is overstepping its authority is by mandating that the county implement source-of-income legislation, which refers to Section 8 vouchers, social security, supplemental security income, veteran's benefits and pensions.
HUD wants the county to implement legislation that would fine a landlord up to $50,000 if they fail to accept Section 8 vouchers from tenants. Astorino said the federal government should not force landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers when the program is normally voluntary.
“In my view, that’s not only unconstitutional, but its a voluntary program and should remain voluntary,” Astorino said.
Astorino said the source of income legislation dispute is being handled in court and he believes that the zoning issues will also end up being settled in court.
As a result HUD’s objections to Astorino’s actions, the organization has withheld $12 million of funding from the county. For Pelham, that means $100,000 that was slated for 7th Avenue streetscape improvements and $50,000 for 5th Avenue sanitary sewer improvements is being withheld.
A copy of power point presentation Astorino presented Wednesday is available in the PDF to the right of this story.