It took roughly 16 hours of negotiation but the Westchester County Board of Legislators finally passed the 2012 budget. The goal of a 0% tax levy increase was met, spending was reduced by $90 million, and jobs were saved.
Going into budget discussions, I, along with my GOP colleagues, demanded no tax increase for the residents of Westchester. We cautioned against excessive borrowing. We also demanded that the County’s fund balance not be raided as the supermajority did last year, which led Moody’s rating agency to lower the County’s credit outlook to “negative.”
We felt, as did the County Executive, that spending is at the root of the county’s financial woes and further drawing down the fund balance only exacerbates the problem for the future. Too often elected officials choose to raid reserves and borrow beyond reasonable limits in order solve the self-inflicted problems of overspending and over hiring. Westchester has been plagued by this problem in the past, but for the second straight year, the GOP caucus has fought hard to reverse this trend.
As a caucus, the GOP was committed to restoring as many jobs as possible and preserving programs important to the residents of Westchester. But this was complicated by state and federal mandates, which tie Legislators’ hands, and force tough decisions about how the sacrifice must be shared. Most, if not all, of the programs and services that were pegged to be cut, or have funding reduced, provide worthwhile services to County residents. As Legislators, we had to answer questions such as, Should we fund mandated programs above the legal minimum? Are certain discretionary programs within the scope of County government? Does funding more appropriately fall at the local level? Or is the service better provided without the strings that come with government funding?
These were some of the considerations the GOP and Democratic caucuses weighed during the budget process. While we didn’t agree on all points, we were able to negotiate and compromise enough to agree on a budget for 2012. The County Executive also took an active role during the marathon negotiations. In the end, we found enough to agree on to move forward.
As the Legislator for District 1, I am pleased I was able to restore programs important to those I represent. My first priority was to find a way to restore as many jobs as possible. We were able to restore 187 of the 210 proposed layoffs in the County Executive’s proposed budget. I also supported restoration of funding for Cornell Cooperative Extension, Arts Westchester, and Hudson River Healthcare. Not only do these programs serve thousands of District 1 residents, they also represent small business and jobs. As a former mayor and long-time teacher I know first hand how important these programs are to the culture, health, and economy of Northern Westchester.
I also supported restoring funding for a program called Community Capital Resources. This line item has a very small impact on the County budget but plays a very big role in helping small business. A number of local businesses have relied on this help to survive. Small business is the backbone of our economy and Northern Westchester is no different. As someone who realizes the need to support small business and economic development, I felt these funds were essential to the future health of our local economy.
While we were able to arrive at a bi-partisan agreement on the budget there is still work to be done. The County Executive has the right to exercise a line-item veto on the approved budget, and this process is not complete, so minor changes are possible. I am confident the 0% increase will be retained but slight adjustments may follow the veto reconsideration vote.
I am pleased we were able to work across the aisle to deliver a 0% tax increase while lowering spending. But the budget process can be dramatically improved. Specifically, we need to encourage wider public participation in the budget process, and the public should have an opportunity to comment on the budget that the Board of Legislators ultimately votes on. This year, we had 3 public hearings; one for the south part of the county in New Rochelle, one in Somers for Northern residents, and a final hearing at the County Center. Over a hundred spoke at all three for a total of nearly 15 hours, but many who voiced their opinion spoke at all three hearings. Also, the only budget that was commented upon was the initial one proposed by the County Executive, not the budget eventually voted on by the board. In my view there should be at least one opportunity for the public to review and comment on the budget that will actually be voted on. It is my suggestion that the Charter Review Commission present changes to this process to encourage wider participation and elicit public comment on the actual budget that will be voted on.