Agreement Reached on Westchester County 2012 Budget

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.

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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