Friends often say that politics seems to defy common sense. On Thursday, I spent the day at the Westchester Board of Legislators (BOL) involved in debates that most people would view as easily solvable, but unfortunately, the injection of politics, inflexibility and partisan maneuvering threatened important decision-making.
Debate One – Press Conference on 2013 County Budget
The Westchester County government has outstanding employees. I have always been impressed with their hard work and dedication. Unfortunately, during the past two budget cycles, the slow economy, decreasing revenues and increasing costs have caused the County Executive (CE) and BOL to consider layoffs to balance the budget. Through hard work on those budgets, we cut costs and avoided layoffs by reducing the size of our workforce by not filling vacancies.
One of the difficult financial problems facing the County government is the increasing cost of our workforce, when you factor in salaries, benefits and pensions. The costs for health benefits and pensions are skyrocketing ($19 million increase for 2013 budget). The vast majority of County employees still don’t contribute anything to health benefits, unlike most municipal and private sector workers across the country. Three of the unions representing County workers have reached an agreement and are now contributing to medical benefits, but five other unions have not reached an agreement, including our largest union CSEA.
On Thursday, I attended a press conference with the CE who presented an estimated $86 million shortfall for the 2013 County budget, which we will be reviewing and voting on in November and December. The CE made a strong plea to those unions that have not settled to work diligently with the County negotiators to reach a settlement that will help address the $86 million budget shortfall. If these unions do not settle quickly, we will be facing 175 to 200 layoffs in the 2013 County budget.
It is certainly my goal to avoid layoffs, especially in this difficult economy. It will hurt the affected families and harm our delivery of services. I am also committed to holding the line on property taxes, so the 2013 budget process will be very difficult. Since County Legislators have a fiduciary duty to taxpayers to pass a budget that is fiscally sound and balanced, and based on the projected budget shortfall, layoffs are currently expected to be part of the 2013 County budget. We need the union leaders to step up, agree to new contracts and stop the layoffs of their own members. Unfortunately, we only have a month before the budget is released and time is running out. I remain hopeful for compromise, but am prepared to make difficult decisions in the budget to ensure that Westchester not only has economically responsible finances for 2013, but also that we lay the foundation for fiscally prudent budgets in the following years.
Debate Two – County Legislators violate law by improperly signing a lease
I was shocked to learn that several County Legislators set up a press conference on Thursday to sign a lease with the Westchester Children’s Museum for Playland. I support the Children’s Museum – it was approved by a unanimous, bipartisan vote and override of the CE’s veto. We all hoped the lease would be executed by now since the law passed in August 2011. However, this delay is no excuse for violating the law, which two County Legislators did when they signed the lease.
The Children’s Museum Law specifically states the following:
“The County Executive or his authorized designee as authorized and empowered to execute all instruments and take all actions reasonably necessary to effectuate the purposes of this Local Law.“
As you can see, this law clearly requires that only the “County Executive or his authorized designee” can sign the lease on behalf of the County with the Children’s Museum, and it certainly can’t be signed by legislators. Remarkably, this is exactly what happened in front of an excited audience of Children’s Museum supporters who were clearly misled.
There are much more thoughtful and effective ways for County Legislators to express their concern about the County’s delay in signing the lease – outside of violating the law. For example, I may have joined a bipartisan press conference calling on the CE to sign the lease as soon as possible. Instead, I was forced to do a counter press conference on Thursday to explain to the media that the lease signing was illegal, the lease is null and void, and that this reckless action is not helpful to the Children’s Museum. How unfortunate that due to irresponsible politics, a supporter of the Children’s Museum was forced into this position. We can have different opinions on issues, but no elected official should violate the law in their official duties.
In conclusion, our County government has a lot of serious and important work to do in the coming months, and we need everyone involved to put aside the politics and place the emphasis on compromising and doing what is best for all the people of Westchester.