In an historic moment for Westchester County a bi-partisan coalition of 9 legislators came together to create the 2013 budget that does not raise taxes, preserves the County’s fund balance, provides fiscal stability for the future, protects the most vulnerable people in our County, and points the way to a better future where we can work together to make government work to help us all.
Understanding the fiscal cliff the county was being led toward by the proposed budget created by the Democratic Caucus, two Democratic legislators broke ranks and joined the 7 Republican members of the board to create the coalition budget.
Unlike the budget presented by the Democratic caucus, the bi-partisan coalition of legislators was committed to presenting a budget consistent with the main goals established in the County Executives proposed budget; no increase to the tax levy and no use of reserve funds that would jeopardize the county’s AAA credit ratings.
The Democrats ignored the fiscal impacts and sound budgeting procedures by adding $13 million in spending to the County Executive’s proposed budget while falsely inflating revenues that put their budget out of balance by over $20 million! This guaranteed nothing short of financial chaos for 2013.
The Democrats’ plan was to drain the county’s reserves by $11 million, despite the recent negative outlook given to the County by the rating agencies and warnings not to spend the reserves. They also planned to short-change Medicaid by $4.1 million, eliminate critical Department of Social Services positions that would cripple the administration of client services, cut $900,000 from the county’s paratransit program that services veterans and the disabled, eliminate important Department of Corrections funding, eliminate critical positions needed to run the day-to-day activities of the county from budget department, finance department, legal department, Public Works Department, as well as the Information Technology and Social Services Departments.
The bi-partisan coalition looked to strike a balance between what the County Executive proposed in his budget and the need to respond to the residents of Westchester County. The coalition budget message states: “We recognize that this proposal does not fully achieve what each member may want in the 2013 budget; nor does it achieve fully what the County Executive proposed. What it does do however is worth the consideration of all colleagues and the County Executive. This plan achieves a 0% tax increase; keeps the reserve fund at its current level; provides an increase in the subsidy for low income day care users; and restores 28 key positions (including Probation, Park Curators and funding for 4 current vacant positions in the Department of Public Safety). This plan keeps from raising property taxes; protects those in need of certain services; and maintains the County’s triple A bond rating.”
Our coalition budget is not filled with one-shot gimmicks or overestimated revenues. In a true spirit of compromise the coalition budget we crafted was able to restore: 3 paralegals to the law department, 3 emergency services essential staff, 5 police officers, 10 probation officers, 4 parks positions, and 5 engineers to the Public Works Department.
The security of those departments charged with public safety was a particular concern addressed by the coalition budget. The Westchester County Police and Probation Departments were restored to full strength and Emergency Services personnel were also restored.
Earlier this year the GOP caucus attempted to forge a compromise between the administration and the Democratic caucus of the board in regards to the childcare contributions. The County Executive set the contribution at 35% to be more in line with the majority of counties in New York State while the Democratic legislators insisted on it remaining at 20%. The bi-partisan coalition was able to establish a compromise at 27% contribution, thus helping needy families while saving $4 million.
Also included in the coalition budget was funding to restore or more fully fund key county programs. Three programs included in the County Office for Women related to Small Business Training, Domestic Violence Training and Tot Drop & Human Trafficking received funding. Community Capital Resources that helps small businesses throughout the county received restored funding. Key senior citizen services for Elder Abuse Legal Services and training received funding. Arts Westchester and Cornell Cooperative Extension also received restored funding.
Over the past few months I have been working closely with Legal Services of the Hudson Valley and the County Executive to establish a presence in the Cortlandt/Peekskill/Yorktown region for free legal services for eligible Veterans and Seniors as well as their domestic violence program. I insisted that our coalition budget preserve the funding for this initiative as was originally included in the County Executive’s proposed budget. I’ll discuss this at a future date in greater detail.
Unfortunately, there is also a disappointing side to this otherwise positive story – the actions of the 8 legislators who were not in support of the budget presented by the bi-partisan coalition. Knowing that they did not have a majority to pass their reckless budget plan the 8 legislators attempted to thwart the democratic process through outrageous acts during the budget vote. With the majority of 9 bi-partisan legislators ready to vote to approve the plan described above, the minority of 8 decided they would “adjourn” the meeting and walk out of the legislative chamber. They even went so far as to turn out the lights, cameras and microphones used to live stream and record the meeting for the public to participate. They did not, however, follow parliamentary procedure and ignored the rules of the board and the Westchester County Charter. Nevertheless, the majority of legislators that remained followed the letter of the law and board rules to continue the meeting undeterred and perform the duties they were elected to uphold. The Westchester County Budget for 2013 was passed by a majority of legislators and was subsequently signed and accepted by Westchester County Executive Astorino soon afterward.
As positive as this result was for the people of Westchester County, it was also a positive lesson in governmental compromise that could be utilized in other levels of government. This coalition budget process put political party aside and focused on what was best for the citizens of Westchester. We focused on what we were elected to do, represent our constituents while also doing the right thing for the entire county.
Additional note: The support for this outcome has come from all areas of the county and from all political affiliations. Below are links to a few of the published editorial pieces that you may find interesting: