By ASHLEY HELMS
Following more than 12 hours in executive session, Westchester County’s Board of Legislators approved a 2014 budget by a bipartisan near-unanimous vote on Dec. 10.
The ease of coming to an agreement on the budget stands in stark contrast to obstacles the board faced in approving a budget last year. Legislator Judy Myers, a Larchmont Democrat, was the lone member of the Board of Legislators to vote down the budget proposal.
The legislator’s budget is not expected to alter the tax rate from the initial budget, proposed with $1.7 billion in total spending, presented by Republican County Executive Rob Astorino last month. Property tax rates in the 2014 budget have not been released yet.
The county executive unveiled his 2014 budget On Nov. 15 that holds the line on taxes for the fourth year in a row, with the tax levy rate remaining flat at $548 million. Astorino’s budget proposal doesn’t differ much from the budget approved by the Board of Legislators.
The legislators’ budget calls for $900,000 to be added to the county’s low-income child care system, Title XX, to extend the program. Enrollment in Title XX has been frozen since Astorino took office in 2010, but the additional funds are expected to open 180 slots for families to enroll their children in program.
Nearly $1 million was added to other social and advocacy programs, including literacy enrichment, domestic violence education and resource center for immigrants.
Myers, who will leave elected office at the end of the year after she did not seek re-election, said she is concerned the budget is too reliant on borrowing through the state amortization plan. Myers also chairs the Budgets and Appropriations Committee.
“I don’t think it was a good enough budget for Westchester County, but I am thrilled that it is finally opening up some childcare money that has been closed to us,” Myers said.
The county executive proposed borrowing $42 million through the amortization plan during the unveiling of his budget in November in order to help pay for a $91 million county pension bill to keep taxes flat. The plan allows employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments down the road and is being used 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.
Myers said she fears this will hurt the county down the road, forcing Westchester to owe more money to the state pension fund.
The county executive now has until Dec. 15 to veto the entire budget or 10 days to veto individual line items. And Astorino has a history of vetoing a significant amount of line items in past legislator budgets, causing a stir among legislators.
During negotiations for the 2011 budget, Astorino struck down 249 line items in the legislators’ budget. These were the most vetoes he ever rolled out. In the 2012 negotiations, the county executive only vetoed 27 items.
Ned McCormack, communications director for the county executive, said one of the main reasons why the board’s 2014 budget was passed without significant difficulties was that Astorino articulated goals before deliberations began—including no tax increases and no use of reserve funds—and the Board of Legislators was able to work within those goals.
“The Republicans and the Democrats should be commended for working with the county executive in a bipartisan way to bring the budget to fruition,” he said. “Once the goal posts were established, it was clear two sides could work out differences in the middle of the field and make compromises.”
Last year, the Board of Legislators squabbled over Astorino’s budget and two Democrats on the 17-member board, legislators Michael Kaplowitz, Somers, and Virginia Perez, Yonkers, broke ranks with the majority and voted with seven Republicans to pass the 2013 budget.
As the saga continued, Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat, disagreed with how the budget was passed, stating that he adjourned a budget hearing, with he and seven other Democrats leaving the chambers prior to the final vote.
This year, Board Democrats remained adamant against 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.
Thomas Staudter, communications director for the legislative Democratic caucus, said money was allocated for social programs from budgetary line items that were expected to cost more than they did.
“All of these elected leaders in the administration and among the Board of Legislators understand how important it is to provide this boost to those who try to climb the economic ladder,” Staudter said.