By DANIEL OFFNER
With the stage set for a contentious electoral season, the two candidates running for Westchester County executive have taken their campaigns on the road, touring the county one town hall at a time.
For the incumbent, Republican Rob Astorino, the campaign strategy is one he has been implementing over the past year through his “Ask Astorino” town hall forums. As of press time, Astorino has visited 22 municipalities in the county to field questions from local residents on issues presently facing county government.
Similar to the tactic taken by the Astorino campaign, Democratic candidate and City of New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson recently announced he too plans to tour town halls around the county to answer residents’ questions and comments on the current administration’s approach on several issues facing Westchester.
“These are substantively different events,” said Jessica Proud, a spokeswoman for the Astorino campaign. “County Executive Astorino’s town hall meetings accurately inform Westchester families about what’s going on in the county. Mr. Bramson’s are political forums. If Mr. Bramson were to give accurate information about his tenure in New Rochelle—for example, his 109 percent tax increase—he would lose votes at every stop.”
Aptly dubbed “Getting to Know Noam,” Bramson plans to tour five town halls through Aug. 4, with a presentation on his campaign platform for the upcoming elections this November. According to Bramson’s campaign manager, Barry Caro, town hall-style meetings are a standard campaign strategy, which gives the candidate an opportunity to have a long-form discussion with people.
“Rob Astorino didn’t invent the town hall meeting,” Caro said. “He is not the first or the last candidate to do so.”
On July 25, Bramson held his third town hall event at the Mount Kisco Public Library to give a brief overview of his “plan of action.”
“I like to think of the City of New Rochelle as a microcosm of Westchester County as a whole,” Bramson said.
In his presentation, Bramson discussed several important issues facing the county, including the affordable housing settlement, land use and development, funding to the county Department of Social Services, as well as national issues like gun control, abortion, and marriage equality.
Under a housing settlement the county made in 2009 under the administration of former Democratic County Executive Andy Spano, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the county construct or acquire a total of 750 units of affordable housing across 31 eligible communities in the county by 2015.
During recent Ask Astorino events, the county executive said HUD has since tried to “move the goal posts,” by using data not included as part of the settlement to recommend new affordable housing benchmarks. Based on a study done in 2004 by Rutgers University, a federally appointed housing monitor James Johnson, who has been overseeing the county’s compliance with the settlement, said 5,847 units should be built across Westchester County.
“I will do what is in the settlement,” Astorino said. “But I will not do what is in the interest of the federal government.”
During the July 25 “Getting to Know Noam” event in Mount Kisco, Bramson said, despite the “fear tactics” from the Astorino camp, the number requirement remains at the 750-unit threshold.
“An intelligent housing policy is in everyone’s interest,” Bramson said. “We need to stop shouting and hold work sessions that are constructive to a sensible housing policy.”
On the topic of social services, Bramson said the county should promote the independence, responsibility and self-reliance of people to contribute to a common good. “We’re all in this together,” Bramson said. “We can’t wall off social distress and live in splendid isolation.”
During the last budget cycle, the county cut funding for the Department of Social Services, which resulted in an increase in fees for the Title XX program, which is used to subsidize low-income families. The subsidy specifically provides temporary assistance to recipients who need daycare services in order to work at a job or to participate in the department’s mandated employment related activities.
After the cuts the county now requires that families contribute 35 percent of their weekly pay—as opposed to the previous 20 percent contribution—which exceeds twice the federal poverty line and caps the availability of the program.
According to Astorino, the county was able to preserve essential services with no tax levy increase by cutting the amount of spending in the county’s social services budget. According to Astorino, department spending on social services have increased a total of $17 million from 2010 to 2013.
Yet, despite the fiscal concerns, Bramson argues that, based on the cuts to the county’s Title XX program, Westchester needs a greater level of coordination within the Department of Social Services, instead of the “draconian” cuts made to childcare credits.
Four months remain until Election Day.