By ASHLEY HELMS
For the fourth year in a row, County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, unveiled a budget proposal that will not increase the county tax levy.
The 2014 county budget calls for the addition of six positions in county government along with keeping Westchester’s property tax levy flat at $548 million. Since he was elected to the county’s highest office in 2009, Astorino has stemmed the tax tide, decreasing the property tax levy by 2 percent and delivering on a campaign promise he made four years ago.
Property tax rates in the 2014 budget have not been released yet.
The county executive said at a Nov. 15 press conference in White Plains to unveil his budget that, before he was elected, the tax levy increased by 17 percent during the final four-year term of former County Executive Andrew Spano, a Democrat.
“We never truly had a balanced budget because the county lived above its means,” Astorino said. “[What] does not need to be spent, won’t be spent.”
The county is expecting to borrow $42 million through the state pension amortization plan to help pay for retirement system contributions for state employees, which cost the county $101 million this year, the county executive said.
The state amortization plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments in the future and is being utilized by county and local governments across the state. The county borrowed $35 million from the state plan in 2013 to help pay for a $91 million pension bill and help keep taxes flat.
But critics of the plan have said that borrowing money to offset tax increases from pension increases is kicking the proverbial can further down the road.
The cost of the retirement system imposed by New York State is commonly considered by local governments to be the most financially burdensome of all unfunded mandates with which municipal governments must contend.
But Astorino, who was just re-elected to a second term, said he does not anticipate having to borrow money through the state amortization plan in the next few years and not borrowing the $42 million in 2014 would have had severe consequences for county employees.
“There would be 360 layoffs to pay in full for pensions without the state pension plan,” Astorino said. “The pressure is real.”
The Civil Service Employees Association, Westchester County’s largest union with about 3,300 members, is still negotiating a contract that includes healthcare contributions with the county. This is the only union out of the county’s eight employee unions working under an expired contract.
In total, all of the county’s employee unions will pitch in $4 million in health care benefits.
The budget proposal assumes that the CSEA will agree to the contract negotiation.
Other 2014 budget highlights include a $1.7 billion total budget for county spending along with a 4 percent increase in sales tax revenue, up to $398 million from $382 million in 2013, and a $13 million increase in state aid to the county over the 2013 budget.
Playland park will open for business in 2014, the county executive said, and the Sustainable Playland Inc. agreement with the county to oversee management of the historic amusement park is still pending approval by the county Board of Legislators. The SPI agreement has caused contentious disagreements within county government, with some Democrats saying the plan was not thoroughly vetted by the county administration and was pushed towards approval hastily.
If the Board of Legislators does not approve the SPI agreement, Playland will continue to be operated by the county Parks Department.
The county executive’s budget proposal is just the beginning of a process that will continue for the next six weeks. The Board of Legislators will now have a series of meetings and hearings before they approve their own version of a 2014 budget on Dec. 27 and submit it to the county executive for his signature.
But the Board of Legislators had its struggles last year squabbling over the 2013 county budget, as two Democrats on the 17-member board broke ranks with the Democratic majority and voted with the seven Republicans to pass the budget.
County Democrats disapproved of cuts to social safety nets, including daycare programs and community healthcare centers outlined in the 2013 budget, saying the spending cuts would affect the county’s most vulnerable residents.
This year, Astorino increased funding for daycare by $2 million from the 2013 budget, but the parental costs of the non-mandated daycare remains at 27 percent, a number that served as a compromise between the administration who wanted to up the share to 35 percent, and the Board of Legislators’ majority that wanted the share to be reduced to 20 percent.
The 2014 social services budget remains flat at $559 million, the county executive said.
“Ultimately the winners of this budget are the taxpayers,” Astorino said. “I think what has been noticed is that right, wrong or different, we’ve made changes.”