by Robert Kimmel
Opposition has been rising to County Executive Rob Astorino’s 2016 proposed operating budget since he presented it to the Westchester County Board of Legislators last month. The budget totals $1.802 billion, and as Astorino pointed out, “For the sixth year in a row, my budget contains no increase in the property tax levy.” The budget maintains the county’s highest possible credit ratings, and “promotes economic growth,” Astorino stated.
Decreasing revenue collections from sales taxes, due to lower fuel prices, and “ever-increasing unfunded state and federal mandates,” continue to be a burden on the county’s finances, the County Executive explained.
While he said the budget continued, “…to provide essential services and protect the neediest residents among us,” Astorino faced heated reactions to some budget cuts. Astorino emphasized that “childcare, libraries and bus routes face no reduction in spending”; however, staff cutting and decreases in funding for non-profits are drawing fire.
“Over the past six years, the county has worked diligently to achieve savings through a variety of expense-cutting actions, such as a reduction in discretionary spending, a 16 percent reduction in staff primarily through attrition and contract negotiations with seven of our eight unions, and this negotiation resulting in employee contributions toward health care costs,” Astorino stated.
Twenty-five employees are being laid off to help balance the budget. Earlier this year, 158 employees accepted a separation incentive and left. Other proposed layoffs will bring the 2016 number of county employees to 4,783.
The Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) asserted that it was “not in tune” with the budget. “This budget makes Westchester residents less safe by laying off workers and eliminating positions that are necessary to take care of the most critical needs of our citizens, and sets aside no money for a CSEA contract,” contended Westchester County Unit 9200 CSEA President Kwabena Manu .
ArtsWestchester released a statement critical of what it said was a “20% cut in funding for the arts” in the budget. “As devastating as the loss of 2016 funds is, our concern is that it is a sign of eroding county support for the arts,” it continued. It asserted that county legislators need to know that residents are concerned about cuts to the arts. They “…have a short window of time to restore funds,” it concluded. Purchase College-SUNY president Thomas J. Schwarz added his voice to the opposition, also calling for residents to push for full funding for the arts at public hearings on the budget.
NonProfit Westchester, which represents scores of county non-profits, leads a campaign labeled #KeepWestchesterThriving, opposing the cuts.
Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner distributed a statement from the Greenburgh Nature Center, which he noted was a call for the town’s “…residents to encourage the Board of Legislators to restore funds for the Nature Center.” The statement read, “The proposed 2016 Westchester County budget cuts Greenburgh Nature Center funding by 100% or $50,000. As a community nature center, this is a deficit that will force us to dramatically reduce our programs and services.”
One public hearing on the budget remains, scheduled for December 9, at 7 p.m., in the Board of Legislators Chamber, 148 Martine Avenue, 8th floor, in White Plains. The Democratic Caucus of the Westchester Board of Legislators is critical of the proposed budget cuts. It stated, “The budget proposal was released amid third-quarter projections that show the county has a $24.7 million operating shortfall.
Legislator MaryJane Shimsky,who represents Irvington in her district, said, “You cannot have a modern economy or society without safe roads and bridges. Over time, reductions of key personnel in the Department of Public Works have resulted in massive backlogs of capital projects. This budget proposal compounds those issues as Westchester’s roads and bridges continue to crumble every day.”
“Abysmal” is the term used by Legislator Alfreda Williams, whose district includes Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, in referring to “The Astorino administration’s record on child care and other human service issues. By failing to fund proven successful programs, we are inviting bad results and setting up taxpayers to foot the bill in years to come.”
A final budget must be adopted by December 27.