WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Correction: The Greenburgh Nature Center will not be closing as was previously reported. Vicki Sherman, a spokesperson for the Greenburgh Nature Center, said the non-profit will work through funding cuts from the county and be relying more on town funding, donations, and support from its growing membership.
County Executive Robert Astorino released his proposed $1.689 billion budget Tuesday, which calls for 210 layoffs, the elimination of 157 other positions, and cuts to nature centers and health care facilities. Those changes will prevent raising property taxes and endangering Westchester’s AAA bonds ratings, he said.
“For the second year in a row. I have fulfilled my pledge to not raise taxes, and not raising taxes is really at the core of my commitment to make Westchester a place that is affordable for individuals, for families, and for business,” said Astorino, a Republican. “No tax increase may not seem like a big deal, but it is very significant in terms of changing the tax-and-spend mentality that has been pervasive in this county.”
The county executive said his administration delayed releasing his budget plan until the legal deadline because the Republican team hoped to reach an agreement with unions. However, Astorino said the unions forced him to trim the county payroll by 7.5 percent by refusing to contribute to health care costs.
“This is my 684 day in office and for 684 days now and counting I have asked publicly and privately for a unionized workforce to be part of the solution and to help out and pay a reasonable share of their healthcare cost just like everybody else,” said Astorino. “The question of why we had layoffs, I think, is better asked to the unions.”
Karen Pecora, the president of the Civil Service Employees Association, did not return calls for comment. Although there may be some layoffs in the public safety department, Astorino said no public safety or corrections officers would be let go.
The staff reduction would save $14 million in a budget that proposes bridging a $114 million funding gap by cutting $83 million across all county departments, saving $14.5 million from bond restructuring, and recouping $16.5 million from various insurance and pensions savings acquired via last year's 10 percent workforce reduction.
The Department of Social Services’ budget would wrangle with a 2.8 percent funding drop due to less federal funds, which Astorino’s team says will require parents not on public assistance who use county-run daycare facilities to pay 35 percent of their childcare bills.
Astorino’s budget plan, which cuts $100 million from last year's expenditures, proposes breaking contracts with the Mount Vernon Neighborhood Neighborhood Health Center, Hudson River Healthcare, and Open Door Family Medical Center for a collective savings of $1.9 million.
“All three centers are eligible in millions of dollars from the federal government. All three have healthy surpluses, and the combined salaries of the three executive directors exceeds $1 million. I think it’s time the county can step back,” said Astorino.
Playland would remain open under Astorino’s plan. Golf fees would jump $2, except for at Hudson Hills, and six nature centers would close. Those targeted for closing are the Cranberry lake Preserve, Croton Point Nature Center, Read Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenoir Preserve, Marshalnds Conservancy, and the Trailside Nature Museum. Residents will still be able to visit the parks, however, the nature centers will not be staffed or host events.
Westchester would not subsidize ethnic heritage festivals, bicycle Sundays, Battle of the Bands, or the Fourth of July Fireworks. Corporate sponsors are being discussed for some of those annual events.
The county executive has suggested completely de-funding the $990,000 budgeted for the Cornell Cooperative Extension and slicing ArtsWestcehster’s funding in half to $750,000.
Astorino plans to ditch the Route 76 bus in Port Chester and Rye, and instead offer the 160 riders extended service on Route 13, which would then carry riders from Rye to White Plains without a transfer.
The county executive says Westchester cannot risk dipping into the reserve funds to carrying last year’s $548 property tax levy into the 2012 budget. Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Westchester’s bonds outlook from stable to negative this summer because the county has been relying more on reserve funds.
“The rating agencies say that the funds balance should be at at least 5 percent of expenses for a AAA rated county. Past actions have left the fund balance very close to 5 percent and now my plan calls for stabilizing the fund balance by not using it,” said Astorino. “In terms of the family budget, it’s like the piggy bank. You don’t use it to pay the cable T.V. Bill. You would use it if you had to if the roof collapsed.”
County lawmakers, which have a Democratic-supermajority, have echoed Astorino’s vows not to raise taxes and preserve the AAA bonds ratings, according to Legislator Peter Harckham (D-Katonah).
“We’ve agreed on the goal posts,” said Harckham, the Democratic majority leader. “He [Astorino] showed the undesignated fund balance. We have very healthy reserves in our designated fund balances, which gets us over 9 percent. So again, let’s take a look at all of the numbers.
Harckham said the unions had always been “a phone call away” for him, though, he didn’t specify whether Democrats would support the layoffs.
He said the daycare contribution increases and funding cuts to the Cornell Cooperative Extension and ArtsWestchester may have to be reconsidered because of public outcry at similar propositions last year.
“There will be some serious discussion around the table about things like that,” said Harckham. “When you raise it to 35 percent, they can’t afford it. We know that empirically. We also know empirically that when people lose their childcare they go on more expensive mandated public services.”
What do you think of Astorino's propose budget? Do you think it will provide your family with tax relief? Does it cut services you rely on? Join the conversation below.