By LIZ BUTTON and ASHLEY HELMS
Rye City Councilwoman Catherine Parker and former Mamaroneck Village Trustee Tom Murphy faced off in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Mamaroneck Town Center in the first of two scheduled debates.
The two candidates are in a tight race for the Democratic nomination for a county legislative seat, currently held by Judy Myers, a Larchmont Democrat.
The July 31 debate, hosted by the Larchmont-Mamaroneck League of Women Voters precedes a second debate in Rye, leading up to the primary on Sept. 10. The primary winner will face Republican challenger John Verni, a real estate developer from New Rochelle.
Many Democrats thought Parker, a small business owner on Purchase Street, was going to be a shoe-in for the District 7 seat after she was endorsed by Myers, who announced her pending retirement from the board in early May after four terms in the position. But the candate was caught by surprise when Murphy entered the race soon after.
Parker, who was first elected to the Rye City Council in 2007 and previously served as President of the Rye Chamber of Commerce, said that becoming a county legislator would be a natural transition for her, in part because many of the concerns the City of Rye faces mirror those in the county, like flood mitigation.
In fact, Parker said, “the best reason for county government is flood mitigation.”
Murphy, who served on the Village of Mamaroneck Board of Trustees for six years until 2009, agreed that municipalities need help with flood mitigation measures.
Parker also cited the county’s extremely high taxes, putting the blame for this primarily on Republican County Executive Rob Astorino, who was elected to office in 2009, as well as for complicating the county’s fulfillment of the federal Housing and Urban Development affordable housing settlement and hurting low-income families by reducing county daycare subsidies and increasing parent contribution fees.
These are “draconian” cuts to services that help those most in need in Westchester and programs that aid the middle class as well, Parker said. She said Astorino borrowed money because he couldn’t reduce the tax burden. “There was an increase, but we put it on the county credit card,” she said.
Murphy agreed, saying that the county needs to find a way to fund the services that Astorino has cut, like working families’ daycare subsidies.
But, Murphy said, while Westchester has the highest taxes of any county in the nation, it also has the most services of any county, a fact that often goes unmentioned by politicians.
Murphy said that the county’s chief product is the education of its children: education tax is 50 percent of the average Westchester resident’s tax bill, while county taxes are comparatively lower at 15 to 20 percent. But the former trustee said that the majority of people are willing to pay these education taxes because that is why they moved to Westchester in the first place.
“We have to watch every penny and every dime, but we also have to watch our services and see what we can do without,” he said. “If we’re going to have a realistic discussion about taxes, then we have to have a realistic discussion about services.”
The candidates also agreed it is not worth HUD suing the county for $500 million for non-compliance with the 2009 housing settlement. The lawsuit would cause the county’s tax bill to double if 31 eligible communities do not build a total of 750 units of affordable housing by 2016, as
Murphy and Parker agreed “the settlement is the settlement” and the county must move on. They said Astorino is spreading unfounded fear that the federal government will meddle with municipalities’ zoning laws to make room for more units.
Prior to running, Murphy also addressed affordable housing concerns as a member of the Washingtonville Housing Alliance.
In terms of making tough economic decisions about costs to taxpayers and county services, Parker said the county needs to look at what it needs to have and what it would like to have and then do a cost-benefit analysis.
While the candidates saw eye-to-eye on the majority of issues, one area the candidates differed upon was the fate of county-owned Playland park. The county recently entered into an asset management agreement with Rye-based nonprofit Sustainable Playland. The non-profit has 30 days to submit its Playland improvement plan to the county executive, which will pass it on to the Democrat-led Board of Legislators for approval.
When asked for their recommendations on the future of Playland, Parker said it is obvious that the park needs a major facelift, and, while the community was not very involved in the process of choosing the new management company, she and many others were very supportive of the plan.
Parker said she sees the park as nice to have, but Murphy said he sees Playland as a must-have, pointing out the many workers the park provides with jobs.
The county executive rushed to judgment on choosing Sustainable Playland to manage the park, Murphy said, and overstated claims that it was losing money.
Playland is the only park where the debt service is included in calculations of its annual losses, Murphy added, so the county’s assertion that a massive amount of taxpayer money was being wasted is not based on valid calculations. Murphy said the county must keep Playland “accessible for everyone; it has to be there for the people who use it as their main source of entertainment.”
Parker also emphasized her concerns about flood mitigation during the debate, as well as her concern for environmental issues like cleaning up the Long Island Sound, storm water runoff and climate change, which she said is one of the direct causes of problems with flooding. District 7 is in the heart of the Sound Shore area and is very vulnerable to flood disasters. Parker said the county should create an office of flood management that will work with municipalities and coordinate with state agencies.
“As Sound Shore communities, we know that water knows no municipal borders,” Parker said. While municipalities must handle their own flood mitigation measures, Parker said, the county also has a part to play.
The open seat in District 7 includes Mamaroneck, Larchmont, Rye City and parts of Harrison and New Rochelle.