By Robert Kimmel –
In an effort to get Westchester back to what one county official described as “solid fiscal footing,” the Board of Legislators has passed an operating budget of nearly $2 billion dollars, raising county property taxes by two percent. The tax hike announced Monday is considerably below the maximum 5.7% cap allowed by the State, according to an independent audit.
The county portion is about one-sixth of the total property tax bill, whereas school taxes make up nearly two-thirds. Thus the new increase will add only a fraction of a percent to the tax bill Westchester homeowners will see next Spring.
“This budget comes from realities we all must face here in Westchester,” County Executive George Latimer said. “Behind numbers are human beings and services that are essential to them. That is the correlation that people need to make; this budget is more than just the total cost of governing but rather the services provided,” Latimer added.
A statement from the County Executive’s office noted, “The 2019 budget, for the first time in recent memory, aims to fund the true cost of running County Government for the year. Previous budgets, like the 2017 Westchester County Operating Budget had run a $32 million general fund operating deficit. For 2018, the projected general fund shortfall stands at $39 million. This budget hole of $71 million is roughly a 50% reduction in the County’s rainy day fund. As noted by each of the three major rating agencies and the Office of the State Comptroller, continued reliance on these funds will only lead to further fiscal issues for the County and is why this budget keeps the entire fund intact.”
Past budgets and deficit spending during prior years had caused the County’s financial status to lose its AAA rating by the three top rating agencies. This is the first budget passed during Executive Latimer’s tenure in office.
“The adopted budget funds essential services for County residents, pays all County employees the 2019 State minimum wage of $12 per hour, increases support for our daycare and not for profit service providers and implements the raising of the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old,” the County statement related. The budget, it continued, “…acknowledges the hardship the Federal Government has imposed on the people of Westchester through the loss of the State and Local Tax (SALT) Deduction in the American Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”
Westchester officials added supportive comments. “This was the first time ever that the County Executive went out to hear from the public before the budget process even started, Deputy County Executive Ken Jenkins said. “Today was a good day for the people of Westchester because things are transparent and moving forward.”
Director of Operations Joan McDonald stated, “While County Commissioners and Directors have tried to make it work over the last several years, we are getting back to solid fiscal footing. These efforts are attributable to the County Executive and the Board of Legislators leadership.” Budget and Appropriations Chair Catherine Borgia commented, “This is a budget that starts to right the ship. It is the first of many years where we will have to find strategic solutions that will help regain the fiscal solvency of Westchester County and put us back into the position we have always traditionally been – an example of how to run County government effectively and efficiently.”
A heavy majority of the Board of Legislators, led by Democrats, approved the new budget by a 13-4 vote. “The people of Westchester won today, “said Board of Legislators Chairman Ben Boykin. “This is a budget that will move us forward to begin the process of rebuilding our finances, adding back to our fund balance and continuing to provide the services that the people of Westchester County need, want and must have.”