Bipartisan Coalition Passes 2015 Westchester County Budget

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’.

Budget Speech

Minority Leader Testa delivering a speech in support of the proposed 2015 Westchester County Budget.

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.

Members of the Republican Caucus meet with County Executive Rob Astorino following the passage of the budget. (L-R: David Gelfarb, Michael Smith, Jim Maisano, Rob Astorino, Sheila Marcotte, John Testa, Gordon Burrows)

Members of the Republican Caucus meet with County Executive Rob Astorino following the passage of the budget. (L-R: David Gelfarb, Michael Smith, Jim Maisano, Rob Astorino, Sheila Marcotte, John Testa, Gordon Burrows)

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.

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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