By PHIL NOBILE
As the winter’s second polar vortex began to hit Westchester with snow and wind, the county executive faced his own whirlwind of questions, concerns and outcry from residents of Mamroneck, Larchmont and beyond.
Serving as the keynote speaker at the Jan. 21 Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit meeting, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, fielded a variety of questions from an eager audience at the Nautilus Diner on Boston Post Road in Mamaroneck. Speaking for one hour, the county executive discussed budgets, affordable housing, Playland and a multitude of county-related issues with an often combative crowd.
“The problems that we face are not going away,” Astorino said. “Often, most of them are perpetrated by Albany and we’re dealing with them on a local level, causing some big problems with our budgets.”
The event, sponsored by the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit, a community group which presents monthly discussions of key issues facing the area, served as a platform for many residents to air their concerns to the highest-ranking elected official in Westchester. According to summit president Elaine Chapnick, the underlying goal is to make the communities in the area aware and better as a result.
“We do what we can to promote those issues that are of concern to us so we can take action if necessary and make this community a better place for all of us to live,” Chapnick said. “It’s very important because so many things that happen at the county level influence how we tax and how we behave locally.”
Astorino began the hour-long session by speaking to the gathering of approximately 100 local residents about what he feels are the county’s biggest concerns and his plans for combating them. Citing an almost $100 million increase in county pension funding from 2001 to 2014, the county executive referred to the current system as “not sustainable.”
“At some point, these bills overwhelm what you take in,” he said. “We’ve got to get back to basics. How do we provide services that are necessary, and get out of things we don’t need to be in, such as Playland, which is a prime example of the county trying to get out of the expenses of something we can’t control anymore.”
Westchester’s historic amusement park has become a contentious issue within the county after controversy over specific aspects of the Astorino-approved nonprofit Sustainable Playland’s plan to redevelop it. When neighboring park residents in Rye discovered a 95,000-square-foot field house would be built in the Playland parking lot abutting their homes, local outcry against the SPI plan spread rapidly.
Astorino has consistently put his full support behind SPI after picking its proposal in October 2012 and described the controversial field zone area as key to the overall plan.
“The sports zone is something that should not be a shock to anyone,” he said. “It was increased a little bit in the final version, and it can and probably will be scaled back a little bit. The parking—how much is needed—that’s all in discussion and legitimate. That is something that is an integral part in moving Playland forward, making it year-round and to make it work as part of the business plan.”
Controversy specifically grew when the field house, originally slated to be 72,000 square-feet in size, jumped to 95,000 square feet inexplicably after SPI’s proposal was selected. The jump in size has yet to be explained by the county executive or SPI. Astorino cited a 2011 citizens committee he appointed, which consisted of 19 members, including Rye Town Supervisor Joe Carvin, a Republican, then Rye Mayor Douglas French, a Republican, and former county Legislator Judy Myers, a Democrat, in defense of transparency with the project.
“Everything has been transparent since day one because I thought it needed to be,” Astorino said. “The plan was approved by the 19-member committee, and so we’re going forward with this. It’s so easy to be bogged down by a zillion reasons and nothing gets done. Playland has to be fixed and has to be improved.”
Despite the issues regarding Playland being a concern of the community as of late, the most antagonistic topic of the meeting was an issue stemming back to before Astorino even took office in 2010.
Prior to Astorino’s first term, in 2009, former County Executive Andy Spano, a Democrat, settled a controversial lawsuit by the Anti-Discrimination Center in Manhattan, and later the federal government, against the county regarding affordable housing policies. The lawsuit was settled by Spano shortly before he lost to Astorino with the terms that the county would spend at least $51 million to build 750 units of housing by the end of 2016 for lower income families in 31 communities deemed eligible based on its inability to meet a racial diversity threshold.
Butting heads with the federal government has resulted from a difference in definitions and terms in the agreement, according to Astorino, who remains firm behind enforcing the original settlement as is.
“The problem with this settlement, which pre-dates me, is that it is so open-ended the federal government continuously tries to make up new terms to this agreement and, as such, continues to put new rules and objections,” the county executive said. “We are going to do what is in the settlement and not to continue to add onto it.”
According to Astorino, the county is on track to complete the 750 units within the next three years, and has 399 units approved or under construction currently.
One audience member had rousing disagreement with Astorino’s stance on the issue, and went back-and-forth about the topic for a few exchanges with the county executive.
“I disagree with the whole premise that the federal government is this evil monolith,” Elizabeth Saenger, a 40-year Mamaroneck Village resident and current chairwoman of the village’s Democratic Party said. “They’ve tried to work with [Astorino], and a lot of independent observers, such as the federal judge in charge, have said he’s been really unreasonable about it and continue to say that.”
The Village of Mamaroneck was not one of the Westchester communities named in the affordable housing settlement.
Saenger, 71, was thankful the county executive answered questions from the audience during the meeting, but remained apprehensive at Astorino’s responses.
“It’s essential for him to entertain questions and for us to ask,” she said. “He presents his interpretation entirely, but he doesn’t really respond to other perspectives.”
When asked about a potential run for governor, Astorino refused a direct answer, criticizing state-level politics further and calling his potential bid a “definite maybe.”
“The problems in New York State have not been solved and are getting worse. Unemployment is a lot higher in New York State than it is in Westchester. To the extent that we can move ideas forward, I will do that,” he said. “I honestly don’t know if I will run.”