By DANIEL OFFNER
Tensions are running high in the race for Westchester county executive after last week’s state Supreme Court decision rescinding incumbent Republican Rob Astorino’s chances at a write-in primary for the Independence Party line.
The court’s decision invalidated any opportunity-to-ballot petitions Independence Party members had collected on behalf of the county executive, after canceling the enrollment of some members of the party.
Now, with animosity between Astorino and his Democratic opponent, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, reaching critical mass, Astorino’s campaign is switching gears, focusing on the issue of healthcare benefits for part-time elected officials.
In a release from the Astorino camp, spokesperson Jessica Proud discussed how the City of New Rochelle currently provides part-time elected officials with healthcare. It is not uncommon for Westchester municipalities to offer its elected officials healthcare benefits. Proud said, under the New Rochelle City Charter, mayors and City Council members are eligible to receive healthcare for life after just five years in office.
“You gave yourself healthcare for life after just five years in office,” Proud said of Bramson. “Do you think you deserve it, and do you think that’s fair to New Rochelle taxpayers?” Proud argued that the policy, which was in effect prior to Bramson becoming mayor, was never revised once in office.
Bramson was first appointed to the role of New Rochelle mayor in 2006—filling out the unexpired term of former mayor, current Westchester County Clerk Timothy Idoni—before being elected to his first four-year term in office in 2007.
Barry Caro, a spokesman with the Bramson campaign, said this is a non-issue and the topic was raised by members of the Astorino campaign to detract from other, more immediate issues facing the county—namely the civil lawsuit issued by the EPA and U.S. Attorney’s office for violations to the Safe Water Drinking Act. The civil suit comes after the county failed to meet an April 2012 deadline to implement Ultra Violet treatment necessary to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
“With his administration and campaign floundering, it’s not surprising that Rob is grasping for straws with desperate attacks like this,” Caro said. “Rob’s trying to invent silly non-issues because he wants to talk about anything other than his abysmal record on issue after issue that matters to Westchester residents, from gun safety to the safety of our drinking water.”
Caro, however, said Bramson is a full-time employee, who voluntarily contributes18 percent to his healthcare costs, although he is not required to contribute at all.
“[Bramson] is eligible to pay no premium because of his hire date,” said Kathy Gilwit, New Rochelle’s communications and marketing manager. “At that time employees did not need to pay towards benefits.”
According to Gilwit, Bramson was first employed by the city in 1996—2 years before the cut-off, requiring employees hired after Jan. 1, 1998 contribute 18 percent of the premium.
She added that under the city’s charter, there is no indication as to whether or not the role of mayor is defined as a part-time or full-time elected position. New Rochelle currently operates under a city manager form of government, in which, the city manager—Chuck Strome—is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the city.
According to Caro, Bramson will no longer continue to collect benefits from New Rochelle, if elected county executive.
In 2010, Astorino changed county healthcare rules so that non-union county employees contribute to their healthcare.
The county executive currently contributes 20 percent to his healthcare costs and his benefits expire with his term.
Since taking office, Astorino has ironed out five county union contracts, under which they agreed to contribute to their healthcare plans. Of the five union deals, the most recent was struck with the county Police Benevolent Association, requiring employees contribute approximately $1,100 for individual healthcare plans or approximately $3,100 for family healthcare plans.
Bill O’Reilly, campaign manager for Astorino, said when Astorino was first elected to the Mount Pleasant Town Council in 1992, he immediately worked to change the law that previously gave council members free healthcare.
“The new law required a substantial personal contribution,” O’Reilly said.
According to Mount Pleaseant’s comptroller, elected officials are currently required to contribute 50 percent of their total health care costs.
Despite Proud’s argument–which says taxpayers are left to foot the remaining cost of elected officials’ health benefits not contributed by the officials themselves–neither candidate has suggested making elected officials pay for their own healthcare altogether.