George Latimer signing ethics code

County Executive George Latimer.

The proposed Westchester County budget for the 2022 fiscal year calls for a reduction in county property tax levy of $7 million. The previous two years there was an annual $1 million reduction. 

Westchester County Executive George Latimer called it “the second deepest cut in county property taxes in the last 20 years,” and said, “It’s the first time that we’ve done three consecutive cuts in county property tax levy in 20 years.” Mr. Latimer noted there have been consecutive freezes, but not cuts of this magnitude.

The cuts impact residents throughout the county to varying degrees based on the state equalization rate and local property assessments, which balances property sizes and values throughout different municipalities. The percentage decrease depends on where you live.

On Nov. 9, Mr. Latimer, who was reelected for a second term a week earlier, handed off a thick binder outlining the county’s proposed operating budget to county Board of Legislators Chairman Benjamin Boykin. Both said they expect negotiations and changes to take place and Mr. Boykin said he hoped for a vote to take place Dec. 13.

Last month, Mr. Latimer presented the capital budget, which called for $476.4 million in “new appropriations on an all funds basis,” including $291.9 million “general county purposes”; $152.4 million for the sewer and water districts; $4.1 million for the refuse district; and $28 million for Westchester County Airport.

Mr. Latimer called budgets at every level “the single most important public policy action that a government takes,” because “every single thing that we believe, every single public policy, every single task that we intend to undertake has to be budgeted” with “resources, manpower allocation (and) financial allocation.”

The overall proposed budget sits at $2.2 billion. It includes a spending increase that relates to the $94 million in revenue the county will receive as part of the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act.

The ARPA money has “taken the pressure off” the county for overtime costs and personal protective equipment purchases from the pandemic, according to the county executive.

“Last year the Coronavirus Cares Act money — and now this year on the money that we received from the federal government — that gives us a great breather,” Mr. Latimer said, adding, “Had we not had that, we’d have a completely different-looking budget … So the federal money helped us balance our budget.”

Mr. Latimer continued, “When someone says you’re spending more this year than last year, we’re spending more because we have a specific allocation of money from ARPA that we will be spending on the programs that have been identified by the federal government, which enhances the services we provide Westchester County. But the baseline of our spending is only marginally more than it was a year ago for a number of different reasons.”

Based on the proposed budget, the county will operate at a $64 million surplus for the full year, which provides for a “significant reserve fund,” which Mr. Latimer called an upgrade from when he first took office Jan. 1, 2018.

“That margin was as low as could be imagined and it caused us to lose our AAA bond rating,” he said. In the fiscal year ending 2017, rating agencies “downgraded our bonds from AAA down to A+, or Aa1, and they put us on a negative outlook,” he explained. “We have now lifted that negative outlook so we have an upgrade in the way our bonds are being looked at. We are now in a stable condition [AA+] and we’re heading in the direction toward restoration of our AAA bond rating by making sure that we have a significant fund balance in this balance,” he said.

As to the increase in the fund balance, he added, “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh they’re hoarding money. No, we’re saving for a rainy day.”

Mr. Latimer said the larger fund balance also is intended to help the county prepare for a future emergency situation similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among other budget highlights:

The county saved $11.4 million due to voluntary separation agreements offered in the summer of 2020 and accepted by roughly 200 workers.

Contract negotiations with “many of our big vendors” also saved money, including Liberty Lines ($20 million over five years) and Wheelabrator/Charles Point Plant, which takes garbage and turns it into energy ($17 million over 10 years). Mr. Latimer called those “significant numbers.” There was also a negotiation with Airbnb that nets $300,000 per year.

Another boost has been sales tax revenue that “has been better than we expected,” said Mr. Latimer, who noted that gets shared back to schools and municipalities throughout the county.

In reviewing the spending initiative highlights, Mr. Latimer featured:

— $25 million for “a host of economic programs” to help residents “to fully be active in the job market and to be gainfully employed.” This includes workforce training, support for small businesses, support to local chambers of commerce, support to religious institutions and support for not-for-profits, which Mr. Latimer said accounts for 20% of people employed within the county. There is also money for tourism and hospitality, which “suffered a terrible downturn because of COVID.” That, he said, is “on the way back up and when we promote those types of activities we improve the general economic health of the county” by generating sales tax revenue and hotel occupancy revenue. “The more nonproperty tax revenue we generate, the less we have to turn to property taxes to balance our budget,” Mr. Latimer said.

— A $52.8 million “full investment” in public safety, noting that crime in the county has gone down the last four years. Police reform is included, but that reform comes in the form of additional support, including $6.4 million for Project Alliance and the creation of eight Mental Health Crisis Response Teams throughout the county. These teams will assist police, so “the chances of deescalating that incident are much greater. And the de-escalation means no tragedy, no harm to anyone. Public safety is assured and the individual is taken so that they can get the help that they need properly and efficiently.” There is also $500,000 for volunteer firefighter and EMT training.

— A focus on health public health, with spending to continue the battles against COVID-19, the seasonal flu and other communicable diseases. There are funds for the county’s clinics to continue to work overtime to provide testing and vaccinations. There is $4 million allocated to federal Neighborhood Health Centers in underserved communities, and $1 million for telehealth programs that targets senior citizens, first-time mothers and others. “All of these programs are wise use of money to try to make sure we get the best possible health care outcomes,” Mr. Latimer said.

— $5.6 million is set aside to expand child care programs. “During COVID it was essential,” Mr. Latimer said. “There were people that worked from the home, but there were essential workers that had to go out and work regardless of the pandemic and they needed to be sure that their children were properly cared for.”

— $50 million for affordable housing. This includes acquiring land and improving infrastructure “in every corner of this county,” Latimer said. “The bottom line is we have to make the resources available and we have to impress upon people the urgency to make sure that people who work for us in key jobs — nurses, teachers, firefighters, police officers — can afford to live here,” he stated.

— $1 million to help landlords of “small residential situations” rehabilitate units and for eviction “prevention efforts” through the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. 

— Support for recreational “assets” of the county are also being supported. Among the spending is $4 million for a Westchester County Center “reimagining” when it no longer serves as a COVID-19 mass vaccination site. There is also $45 million for improvements at Playland Amusement Park and the Playland ice rink. “These are county assets and we believe in those assets,” Mr. Latimer said, adding, “This budget fundamentally takes on the responsibility to fix what’s broken.”

— In transportation and environmental conservation, $31.9 million to purchase electric hybrid buses for the county’s Bee-Line system; $4.3 to begin electrifying the county’s two bus garages; $1 million to install EV charging stations at county facilities; and $1.1 million to improve the Hilltop Hanover Environmental Center.

The Record-Review reached out to local officials for their reactions to the proposed budget. Several said they have not yet had an opportunity to review the plan in detail, but expected to do so in the next few weeks.

The League of Women Voters of Westchester County is hosting a virtual presentation on the proposed 2022 county operating budget Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom. The featured speaker will be County Budget Director Larry Soule, and there will be a Q&A session. For more information, visit my.lwv.org

To review a copy of the proposed budget, visit westchestergov.com.

 

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