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 John G. Testa

Former District 1 County Legislator, John G. Testa is served five terms at the Westchester County Board of Legislators, spending the last 3 terms as BOL Minority Leader. John G. Testa is a lifelong resident of Peekskill who first entered elected public service as a member of the Peekskill Common Council in 1998 and then served three terms as Mayor. He previously served on the Conservation and Parks Advisory Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. John became an elected official eager to improve the City in which his family has lived for more than a century and quickly earned a reputation as a strong, independent, nonpartisan voice for fiscal responsibility. John received a BS degree in Technology from SUNY Oswego, where his academic achievements gained him induction into Epsilon Pi Tau, the International Honorary Fraternity of Technology. He earned his MS degree in Technology from the City College of New York. He began his teaching career in 1980 at Peekskill High School, his alma mater, as an instructor in Technology and Social Studies, retiring in 2013 after 33 years teaching. John has been a leader in support for the Arts Community in Westchester. He presided over the construction of the Peekskill Art Lofts, the establishment of the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, and the complete restoration of the Paramount Center for the Arts, originally a 1930’s movie house and helped bring critical funding to many Westchester programs. Legislator Testa received the “Advancing the Arts in Westchester Award” by ArtsWestchester. John has a been a leader on environmental issues for two decades and has a long record of initiatives he has supported and spearheaded. His active involvement in developing and promoting environmentally friendly policies began as mayor and continued throughout his time as Westchester County Legislator. His efforts consistently earned John the endorsement of the NY League of Conservation Voters. John’s most recognizable accomplishment has been his promotion and preservation of local history and historic landmarks, bringing an unprecedented focus on the region’s rich history, and its legacy of historic Victorian architecture. His roots in historical preservation stem from his experience as a Revolutionary War re-enactor and member of The Brigade of the American Revolution for 50 years. John was instrumental in securing the preservation of the Lincoln Depot, now the Lincoln Depot Museum, where he now serves as President. The museum was recognized in 2015 as one of The Best Museums in Westchester. He also secured the preservation of historic Fort Hill as parkland, a 40-acre parcel that was originally a Revolutionary War encampment site. Under his leadership, the United States Dept. of the Interior declared Peekskill a “Preserve America Community.” John was able to establish a record number of National Register designations of local structures, including the first Downtown and Neighborhood Historic Districts and supported the preservation of the historic Miller House in North White Plains. In 2017 John was named a “Champion of History” by the Lincoln Society in Peekskill. John and his wife of 37 years, Nancy, live in Peekskill and have two adult children, John, Jr. (fiancé Courtney Kelly) and Katy (husband Mike Mearon). John and Nancy recently welcomed the arrival of their first grandchild, Lacey Mae, in 2019.
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