Race to the Top

By Robin Jovanovich and Tom McDermott

If you’re challenging a seasoned and successful professional like Rob Astorino, who is running this fall for a third term as Westchester County Executive, you have to be prepared for a good fight. State Senator George Latimer has come out swinging.

In separate interviews with the Republican incumbent at his office and his Democratic challenger, in our office, the conversation ranged from the proposed public/private County Airport partnership to the HUD affordable housing settlement to Playland

to the annual budget, and what our County taxes are paying for.

Latimer claims that Astorino is: “routinely borrowing, creating an obligation that is going to hit us like a hurricane.”

Astorino maintains that the County has in fact been paying down the $1.1 billion debt he inherited. “Our reserves are up and we ended 2016 with a $1.5 million surplus.”

While the County Executive has, as promised, kept the tax levy flat the past seven years, Latimer and many other Rye taxpayers are quick to point out that their County taxes have gone up during his tenure, which is true. Based on an equalization rate formula — that many say needs rethinking — wealthier Westchester communities pay a greater share of the County tax bill than poorer ones. Residential properties in Rye, Rye Neck, Harrison, Purchase, not to mention Bedford, Briarcliff, and Chappaqua, have higher property values than ones in Mt. Vernon, Yonkers, and Peekskill.

Latimer asserts that while he chaired the Board of Legislators, he helped cut the County levy three years in a row. “My opponent has just created ‘a brand’ of keeping taxes low. In fact, the County is going into its reserve fund.” He added, “The fiscally responsible way is to raise taxes, not borrow for ongoing expenses and make promises you can’t keep.”

What Latimer calls “one-shot deals”, such as sending out requests for proposals for a new public/private lease for the County Airport (“It’s not a privatization but a monetization issue. Astorino baked it into the budget.”), and selling a County-owned property in Yonkers to a developer, Astorino calls “fiscally responsible.”

“Currently, all the money that comes in at the Airport has to stay at the Airport,” emphasized Astorino. “Through a Federal Aviation Administration program, we’ll be able to use profits from the airport for public services. And we’ll continue to have oversight of the Airport. The goal is a better, not a bigger, airport. The lease is very specific in stating that the length and number of runways cannot be increased. There is a cap of 11,500 passengers per day and that will remain.” He continued, “This deal, which will go before the Board of Legislators, will mean a tax revenue stream. It’s an opportunity to take an existing asset and put it to good general use — our parks, day care.”

As far as the Yonkers commercial property, Astorino is well known for his position that the County should not be a landlord.

If elected, Latimer says he is committed to having honest, open negotiations with the unions, as well as a more robust discussion between the County and its communities.

“Every major business is reengineering their business,” said Latimer. “The County must operate the same way. We can’t just think one-year ahead, as Astorino does for his advancement, but long-term, figuring out ways to offer services that municipalities can pay into, sharing more services.” He added, “You can’t just impose your will and act like a mini-Albany, you have to study the pros and cons of regionalizing services, and you’re going to have to do it service by service.”

Each of the commissioners of the County’s 35 departments, noted Astorino, reports to him every year. “We’ve been making ‘surgical’ changes as needed. With seven of our bargaining units we’ve negotiated agreements that require members to contribute to their healthcare benefits. We’ve bargained in good faith with the CSEA unit, making two proposals but both were rejected.”

The County Executive’s biggest accomplishment to date? The HUD settlement earlier this year in the County’s favor.

“It was worth it to stand on principle. HUD were proven right by the facts. We never fought the requirement to build 750 affordable housing units,” stated Astorino. “In fact, 500 are already occupied and we may be close to 900 in the end.”

If reelected, Astorino said he would continue to ensure that the County is run efficiently, keep unemployment low, make sure Playland “gets done right” and woo more developers to come in and repurpose old buildings and underutilized properties. (In fact, the day of our scheduled interview, the County Executive asked to reschedule so he could make a drone-assisted pitch to Amazon to open a second headquarters in White Plains.)

Latimer’s “gut” on Playland, which he lives very near to, is that it shouldn’t have to compete with the big amusement parks. “Legislator Catherine Parker voted against the public/private deal (between the County and Standard Amusements). I would do a deep dive on Playland. It’s a vestige of our past that obviously needs additional capital, but does it have to be a moneymaker? It just needs to break even.”

State Senator George Latimer assures voters that if they elect him, he will treat municipalities properly and run the County rationally and intelligently. “There will be no imperial entourage under me.”

State Senator George Latimer

County Executive Rob Astorino