5th Year in a row with No Tax Levy Increase.
10-7 vote also prevents layoffs and essential program cuts.
On Tuesday December 9th, The Board of Legislators passed a bipartisan coalition budget for 2015 by a vote of 10-7. The 2015 budget keeps taxes flat, preserves the County’s reserves and increases funding to many social safety net programs. As Minority Leader of the Republican Caucus, I would like to share with you some of the highlights of that budget and why I voted ‘yes’.
This was a tough budget that required us to make difficult decisions and compromises but at the end of our negotiations with the County Executive and Democrats on the Board, we were able to craft a plan that keeps taxes flat, protects the County’s favorable credit rating and provides a strong social safety net for our low income families. Some Legislators have criticized and complained about this budget throughout the negotiation process but at the end of the day, those same Legislators never offered their own solutions until after the fact when they said we should have raised taxes. Adding to the tax burden of Westchester Families was something we were not willing to do.
Despite the massive bills from Albany that we must deal with, we were able to provide some very important funding for our partners in the non-profit sector. Non-profits help the county provide services to our neediest residents. The Republican caucus and the County Executive recognize the important role that non-profits play in our county and that is why we increased funding for programs like Subsidized Childcare. This program allows low-income families to pursue employment opportunities with the confidence that their children are cared for in a safe environment. Giving people the freedom to work and advance their education and careers instead of relying totally on public assistance makes our communities stronger and keeps the costs of social services down.
We held three Public Hearings on the county budget where we heard from an array of citizens, non-profits and service providers. We used the information we gathered during the process and the evidence of success of the many organizations throughout the county to determine how tax dollars would be spent.
We increased funding for legal services. A modest increase was added for Legal Aid, which brings public defender’s compensation in line with their counterparts in the District Attorney’s office. Keeping Legal Aid adequately funded ensures that criminal matters are adjudicated fairly and competently, thus limiting the number of appeals that clog our court system and cost more money in the long run.
We also increased funding of legal services for the Northern Westchester office established in 2014 by the Legal Services of the Hudson Valley. This busy office focuses on providing free legal services for senior citizens, veterans and victims of domestic violence. It was important that we establish this office for the residents of Peekskill, Cortlandt and Yorktown since all the previous locations were in the southern portion of the county. The new office, which is located in Peekskill, has been a tremendous success and needed the additional support.
Playland Amusement Park has been the subject of much consideration and debate throughout the year at the Board of Legislators and as expected was a big topic in our budget negotiation as well. Playland carries a significant amount of debt and the interest on that debt means that taxpayers must subsidize the cost of running the park. Depending on attendance in any given season the cost to taxpayers is between $3-$5 million annually. We have been reviewing proposals from private operators who want to partner with the County to run the amusement park. Both proposals include significant upfront funding for the county, which could eventually be used to prevent or reduce borrowing. Some good news is that we had good weather on the weekends this past season and as a result attendance was up which offset some of our operating costs.
We have done a very good job at cutting the size of county government and along with that we have cut the operational costs but the real cost drivers in residents’ tax bills come from costs that are passed on to us by the State. Our pension bills have skyrocketed year after year as have healthcare costs. The State recognizes that and as a solution has offered a financing option for pension costs that allow us to defer a small portion of the bill. Borrowing of any kind is something we want to avoid but in this budget, the alternatives were layoffs of between 150-200 county employees, which would have seriously diminished the county’s ability to provide services or a major tax increase, and eliminating essential programs that help our most vulnerable residents.
Another item that we authorized the County Executive to finance was for the payment of tax certioraris. These are the refunds that the county must make to homeowners who challenge their property tax assessments. In the last budget (2014) we also authorized bonding to pay for the certioraris. Fortunately the county was able to find operational savings throughout the year to avoid borrowing and we are hopeful that we will be able to avoid borrowing again this year.
Passing a budget is a fiscally necessary action that must take place in a fiscally prudent, balanced and timely manner. That is what we did. We were not, however, willing to accomplish this by raising taxes as was recommended by those who voted against the budget. We were also not willing to consider layoffs of county workers or decimating the county’s safety net. In the end we were able to work closely with County Executive Astorino and continue the bipartisan coalition with a few of our colleagues from across the aisle to put politics aside and successfully move the County of Westchester forward in a positive direction.