2011 Westchester County Budget Highs and Lows

In a budget process that lacked transparency and objective input and showed the harmful effects of a supermajority vote to defy the will of the people, the Democratic members of Westchester’s County Board of Legislators passed a flawed budget for 2011.

In an effort to bring fiscal reality and transparency to the budget, County Executive Rob Astorino vetoed 249 lines of the Democrats’ amended budget. Calling the document a “financial disaster,” Astorino sought to eliminate the added spending, restoration of positions, and unrealistic revenues that were used to alter his original fiscally responsible balanced budget.

Astorino’s budget contained a continuation of the very clear message he’s championed since taking office – reducing the size and scope of county government, bringing down spending while maintaining essential services and providing for the neediest in the county. I, along with the Republican minority caucus, have shared that focus since January. It is what I had done, make the tough choices, as Peekskill’s Mayor, what I pledged to do, when I ran for office in 2009 and what I’ve fought for since being elected your County Legislator.

Astorino was able to create a fiscally sound budget that reduced spending by $33 million, reduced the size of county government by 12% and reduced the county tax levy by 1%. All this after closing a $166 million deficit left for him by the Spano Administration, and us, in January 2010.

Working together for the last year the County Executive and the GOP Caucus was able to drag the Democratic members of the board kicking and screaming to the point of reducing the deficit by almost $90 million, by insisting on employee health insurance contributions, reductions in overtime and vacation pay as well as instituting a comprehensive retirement incentive option to reduce the workforce. Thanks to our relentless advocacy for these measures along with your public support the Board simply could not oppose these common sense measures.

However, the Democratic supermajority simply could not help themselves at budget time when they had a real opportunity to join us in taking a major step to right-size county government. Instead, to ‘pay’ for their added spending they arbitrarily and irresponsibly inflated revenue items to unrealistic levels – actions that will all but guarantee the county will be placed in a fiscally dire situation in 2011.

By overriding virtually all of the 249 vetoes, the Democratic supermajority restored their original budget that was created behind closed doors. This budget allowed no input and defied commonly accepted municipal finance practices, utilized gimmicks, and ignored the recommendations of the county’s independent auditors.  According to the County Charter, 12 votes are needed to override a veto, not a simple majority… That means that all 12 members of the Democratic caucus voted as a block to put the county at financial risk.

For example, the Democratic supermajority:

– Raided the 2010 fund balance by $3.5 million to help cover expenses.  A practice never done before and against accepted accounting practices.

– Arbitrarily inflated the sales tax projection, adding $2.3 million of revenue.

– Restored the Section 8 program and its 38 employees even though the program has been eliminated from county control and transferred back to NY State.

– Restored 140 positions eliminated to downsize government and save tax dollars.

– Raided $10 million of the contingency funds in place for unsettled employee contracts since 2009. These contracts are subject to binding arbitration, which ensures some sort of increase that will be required to be paid retroactively. There will be no funds to cover these retroactive payments.

– Restored millions in unsubstantiated phantom revenues from the labs and research department and parks department.

– Restored the $1.1 million in Board of Legislator slush (pork) funds. These Albany-style funds are undedicated and used by the Democratic members without disclosure or transparency.

These are a just a small sample of the 247 veto overrides. They are a direct repudiation of the will of the public and contradict any claims the Democrats make to fiscal responsibility. Their actions have made future budgets more difficult and ensured dangerously large deficits.

Although this assessment of the budget paints a somewhat bleak picture of the state of county government, all is not lost. There is much to celebrate as 2010 comes to a close.

The message of smaller government, less spending and tax relief has become the new mindset and attitude Westchester County Government. Although there is still much to be accomplished, the size of the county government has been reduced by 10%, sending is down by nearly $30 million, close to $90 million of deficit was eliminated and many policies have been instituted to continue progress going forward.

As much as we would like, correcting a 10-12 year time span of continued and systematic “super-sizing” of county government and spending practices that have brought us to the brink of fiscal disaster, cannot be corrected in just one year. We must continue the fight toward the goals we have set.  It will take time but steady and consistent progress will ensure a right-sized county government with reasonable spending levels that can be sustained by the taxpayer and provide the basic essential services that county government was originally designed to provide.

About Legislator John G. Testa

John G. Testa, a life-long resident of Peekskill, began his first term on the Westchester County Legislature in January 2010. Prior to his successful run for the District 1 Legislative seat, he served 3 terms as Mayor of Peekskill from January 2002 until December 2007. Before becoming mayor he also served a four-year term as a Councilman. From his first days in office Testa worked tirelessly to set the City on the path of economic stability. Peekskill flourished under this plan, increasing the city fund balance to its highest in history. During John’s tenure in office, the NY State Comptroller’s Office named Peekskill one of the most fiscally sound municipalities in the State; independent auditors proclaimed Peekskill as being in its best fiscal condition in over 30 years; and Moody’s Investor Service agreed to upgrade its bond rating, resulting in further savings. The plan he put in place was so successful that it enabled the City of Peekskill to pass three budgets in a row with a 0% tax increase. These fiscal skills will prove valuable to Testa as he works to put the brakes on what has been wildly escalating county spending and unchecked government growth. He has pledged his efforts to work to consolidate services, eliminate wasteful spending and improve efficiency. In addition to the fiscal conservatism that served Peekskill so well, Testa worked to promote the city, attracting investment, jobs and an increased tax base. Over $100 million of private investment came to Peekskill in the forms of new residential construction, retail space, and the redevelopment of historic structures. As Mayor, Testa led a successful battle to stop the unfair and unsafe plan to send sewage to the Peekskill plant from outside the sewage/water district. John’s roots are deep within the soil of Northern Westchester. His father’s family has lived here for more than a century and his mother’s family is nearing that mark. He is proud that he was born in Peekskill and has lived and worked here all his life and, with his wife Nancy raised their two children here.
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