Westchester budget coalition: We stuck to principles, found middle ground
Written by Rob Astorino and nine legislators
Last Friday the 10 of us —a bipartisan majority of the Board of Legislators joined by County Executive Rob Astorino —came together to approve a $1.7 billion budget for 2013 that we all firmly believe promotes and protects the best interests of Westchester residents.
It is not a perfect budget. They never are. There is never enough money to pay for every request. But it is a sound budget, both fiscally and socially. It does not raise the county tax levy. It safeguards the county’s AAA credit ratings. It funds the delivery of essential services in our Public Safety, Health, Parks, Social Services, Veterans, Public Works, Transportation and other county departments. And, it maintains a strong safety net for our neediest residents.
How this budget was arrived at tells the story of how responsible compromises are achieved.
Last year, the county executive and the Board of Legislators —Republicans and Democrats —all agreed to two goalposts around which budget negotiations would be framed: no increase in the $548 million county property tax levy and no further raiding of the county’s emergency reserves.
The reasons were obvious. As the county with the highest property taxes in the United States, it was clear that taxpayers in Westchester had reached a limit. It was also clear that the reserves had to be shored up. Moody’s, the ratings agency, had told the county its AAA credit rating was at risk if it continued to drain emergency reserves to pay day-to-day operating expenses. Losing the AAA rating would in effect become a long-term tax increase because it would make it more expensive for the county to pay its bills for years to come.
Working within the two goalposts, a 2012 budget was fashioned.
Last month, the county executive proposed a 2013 budget that again stayed within the bipartisan framework. And like the year before, he said that everything between the goalposts was negotiable. In other words, the legislators had $1.7 billion to work with, an amount equal to about $1,800 for every county resident.
But last week an impasse was created when a majority of the board’s Democrats said they planned to raid the reserves instead of making tough but necessary decisions on spending.
It was then that the team behind the coalition budget was formed: two Democrats and seven Republicans on the board partnering with the county executive. In a classic example of give-and-take, the coalition split the difference between the initial proposals by the county executive and the counter proposals supported by BOL Chairman Ken Jenkins and a majority of Democrats.
Highlights of the compromise include:
• Subsidized day care will be funded with a 27 percent parent share, instead of the 35 percent initially proposed by the county executive but above the 20 percent proposed by the Democratic majority.
• Public safety, emergency services, probation and the DA’s office will receive additional funding. Parks will see the restoration of four positions, including three curators, and the Department of Public Works will see the return of five engineering positions. In all, the coalition budget restores 30 positions (25 filled and five vacant).
• ArtsWestchester will receive $1.25 million and Cornell Cooperative will receive $800,000. In both cases, more than initially proposed but less than what the majority of Democrats had sought.
• Balancing the budget will still require more than 100 layoffs. Most, if not all, of those layoffs could have been averted had the CSEA, the county’s largest union, agreed to a new contract that included employee health care contributions just like almost everyone else pays. But unlike three other county unions, the leadership of the CSEA refused to make a deal.
When it came time to vote on Friday, all of the rules were followed in passing the budget. It is important to remember that it doesn’t matter which party legislators belong to when they cast their votes. Conscience guides their individual votes and majority rule dictates the outcome for our democracy.
The coalition budget demonstrates how it is possible to stick to principles and still move to middle ground. Changes were made but the goalposts remained in place.
No one side got everything, but all sides contributed to the solution. That’s real compromise and good government for the residents of Westchester County.
This writing was signed by County Executive Rob Astorino and the coalition of seven Republicans and two Democrats who voted Friday to approve the 2013 budget. The legislators are: John G. Testa, R-Peekskill; Michael Smith, R-Greenburgh; Michael Kaplowitz, D-Somers; David Gelfarb, R-Rye Brook; Sheila Marcotte, R-Tuckahoe; Jim Maisano, R-New Rochelle; Bernice Spreckman, R-Yonkers; Gordon Burrows, R-Yonkers; and Virginia Perez, D-Yonkers.
Note from LOHUD.COM:
In disputed action Friday, a coalition of seven Republican and two Democratic Westchester County legislators voted 9-0 to approve a $1.7 billion 2013 budget. The rest of the board’s Democratic majority had sought to derail the vote and adjourn the meeting —to no avail. Republican County Executive Rob Astorino signed the measure into law shortly after the vote. Board Chairman Ken Jenkins, D-Yonkers, was asked Monday if his caucus would pursue the matter in court. He replied: “Can’t say.” This commentary was signed by Astorino and the nine coalition members.CtyLegJimMaisano@gmail.com