By CHRIS EBERHART
This year’s State of the County included a promise by County Executive Rob Astorino to submit another budget with a zero percent property tax increase and a plan to free what he called the the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “stranglehold” on the county.
Astorino’s speech was met with resistance from Democratic legislators, who sank their teeth into the Republican county executive’s May 1 State of the County address as soon as it was finished.
During the address, held in front of a standing-room-only audience in the White Plains county courthouse, Astorino received a standing ovation from a packed central juror’s room after he made his annual pledge to submit his 2015 budget with no property tax increase, a feat he has done every year since taking office in 2010.
The other major initiative outlined in Astorino’s speech was his emphatic opposition to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s accusation that Westchester County municipalities have exclusionary zoning in place. He offered a proposal to replace withheld federal grant money with county funds, which drew loud support from those in attendance.
The $5 million proposed county-run fund would replace the $5.2 million federal community development block grant HUD has threatened to take away from Westchester for not being compliant with an affordable housing settlement that required the county to build 750 units in Westchester over a seven-year span while promoting fair housing practices, including changes to local zoning in order to require more affordable housing units.
The federal grant money would be used to “revitalize neighborhoods, prevent homelessness…and to build affordable housing,” according to Astorino.
The proposed county-run block grant would be used in the same capacity.
Astorino said funding this initiative would cost the average household about an additional $1 per year.
“The community development block grants have been HUD’s prime weapon. The strategy was simple. Withhold the money and wait for the county to capitulate on zoning,” Astorino said. “But that didn’t happen and won’t happen while I am county executive. Westchester is not for sale; not for $5, $5 million or $5 billion…This initiative will remove the stranglehold that HUD has been using in its attempt to dismantle our local zoning.”
The affordable housing issue has been a longstanding battle between Astorino and HUD, which said there is zoning in place in seven Westchester municipalities that exclude low-income residents. The Town of Mamaroneck rezoned a portion of the town to permit multi-family housing and changed laws to require more affordable apartments in February and was taken off HUD’s exclusionary zoning list, leaving six outstanding municipalities—Harrison, Pelham Manor, Croton-on-Hudson, Lewisboro, Ossining and Pound Ridge—with exclusionary zoning, according to HUD.
As a result, HUD said Westchester County is not in compliance with the affordable housing settlement of 2009 and has threatened to withhold three years’ worth of federal grants—2011 to 2013—totaling approximately $17.4 million.
The 2011 grant for $7.2 million has already been lost, and Astorino said he is
willing to forfeit the $5.2 million 2012 grant.
Democratic legislators, who have voiced their displeasure with Astorino’s state-wide campaigning and absence in the county while he runs for governor, shot down his county-run community development block grant proposal.
Board of Legislators Chairman Mike Kaplowitz, a Somers Democrat, said it was “ironic” for Astorino to talk about lowering taxes only to propose a county-run block grant initiative. He said he doesn’t believe it would pass the Board of Legislators.
“He wants to control taxes, but then he proposes to spend $52 million [over 10 years],” Kaplowitz said. “And the $5.2 million community development block grant is just the immediate impact. Then you add on interest, federal fines and other loss of revenue.”
Legislator Mary Jane Shimsky, a Hartsdale Democrat, said, “Quite frankly, I’m concerned [about Astorino’s county-run, block grant proposal]. Our taxpayers have already paid for that grant money through federal income tax. That $5.2 million makes up 1 percent of our tax levy. Are we going to raise the tax levy by 1 percent?”
The executive and legislative sides of Westchester government also painted two different pictures of the ongoing Playland renovation saga.
During his annual address, Astorino said Playland’s renovation process is moving along, and the last four weeks have been “constructive” despite the absence of Sustainable Playland, Inc.‑the group chosen by Astorino to run and refurbish the Rye-based amusement park‑from the Board of Legislators review of its plan since April 1.
SPI suspended its participation in the review amidst legal uncertainties after the City of Rye attempted to designate itself as the lead agency for the project over Westchester County in late March.
But Astorino said the project “turned another corner” on April 30, when SPI returned to the table.
“The last four weeks have actually been very constructive because they focused everyone’s attention on the details that need to be worked out,” Astorino said.
Moving forward, Astorino said his administration will take on a more active role in negotiating contracts and will protect SPI—which is a nonprofit composed of volunteers—from current and future lawsuits by providing legal representation.
In response to Astorino’s Play-land remarks, Thomas Stau-dter, spokesperson for the Democratic legislators, said, “SPI walked away from an open and transparent review. Astorino said there were fruitful discussions behind closed doors, but those closed-door discussions are why they’re in this situation to begin with. They have these schemes, but they don’t have answers for the legislators.”
“[Astorino is] entitled to his opinion as to how fruitful the last four weeks were,” Kaplowitz said. “We will find out when the [Board of Legislator review] meetings start back up. If we get answers, it was constructive. If we’re back to where we were with not getting answers, then it wasn’t.”