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Westchester League of Women Voters comments on the county budget

Posted By Elizabeth Ganga On December 7, 2012 @ 12:09 pm In Government & Politics,Westchester County | Comments Disabled

Here is the statement from the League:

COMMENTS BY THE LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF WESTCHESTER TO THE WESTCHESTER COUNTY BOARD OF LEGISLATORS ABOUT THE PROPOSED 2013 WESTCHESTER COUNTY BUDGET

The League of Women Voters of Westchester thanks the Board of Legislators (BOL) and the County Executive for this opportunity to comment on the budget. We will forward copies of this statement to each member, and to the County Executive.

The League appreciates the way budget information has become more accessible through websites maintained both by the administration and the BOL, as well as through the public testimony of the various commissioners before the Budget and Appropriations Committee that has been available both in person and on line. The League urges the BOL to consider making its final version of the budget available for public review prior to voting. We also are most grateful to Budget Commissioner Larry Soule and Deputy Commissioner Francesca Bossey, who met with our membership on November 30, 2012. His presentation was detailed, responding both to questions we sent beforehand and to questions from attending members. This statement is based on positions we reached by consensus following his presentation.more->

As presented, the proposed 2013 budget is based on three premises: no tax increase for the third year in a row; preservation of the County’s triple A credit rating; and maintenance of essential County services. Although the League applauds these goals, we are convinced that the budget solution of borrowing to pay for operating expenses – pension payments and certioraris – is at odds with maintaining our AAA credit rating and that with all projections of revenue remaining relatively flat we are set on a course of having to continue to borrow for these expenses. This is unsustainable in the long run.

Long-term borrowing to fund short-term expenses is simply borrowing for band-aids instead of borrowing for real solutions to long-term needs. In 2012 the County borrowed $24 million at 3.5 percent interest (payable in 10 years) in order to make its annual pension payment. The 2013 budget proposes to borrow $35 million at 3 percent interest (also payable in 10 years) to cover pension costs, and to borrow $13 million at 0.75 percent interest (payable in 5 years) to pay for certioraris. Thus we will be adding to the 2014 budget principal and interest payments that will exceed $8 million. With so much already having been trimmed from the operating budget over the past two years, we are down to bone. We would face cutting services in a way not only unacceptable but perhaps impossible, given the burden of mandated spending and needs. Such behavior will lead to record property tax increases in 2014 and 2015, and surely could result in the loss of a credit rating of which we have been justifiably proud.

For several budget cycles, the League has urged the County to provide help to communities as they work toward revaluation and reassessment. By assisting communities with the expense of the process, the County would see a significant reduction in its own certiorari payments. A survey done by the League during this past year has revealed that half of the County’s municipalities have done revaluation, or are in the process, or are seriously exploring it, usually because of their own certiorari burdens. Again, we see no evidence of such support in this budget. We therefore repeat our recommendation. Achievement of county-wide revaluation will help everyone’s bottom line and promote a fair and equitable distribution of the tax levy.

We find in this budget no real effort at proactive flood mitigation. This year’s hurricane imposed huge unanticipated expenses on residents, municipalities, and the County itself. A Storm Water Advisory Committee established in 2012 received no funding, although it had some technical support from the County’s Planning Department. That is not an adequate response to flooding problems that are endemic to the whole county, the Sound Shore, the tidal Hudson River and areas in between. Once again, we urge the County to provide leadership in coordination of all relevant resources that can reach solutions, both immediate and for the future.

The Department of Planning, which is responsible for actual feet-on-the-ground compliance with the housing settlement ordered by the Federal court, has creatively responded to and worked with the housing monitor, Federal agencies, and the court itself. It has provided needed resources, both technical and advisory, to the municipalities whose actions in the long run will result in the court-ordered 750 units of fair and affordable housing. However, some of its hard-working staff were funded through Community Development Bloc Grants (CDBG) now being withheld because of disagreements between the County and the Federal agencies. Their positions have been transferred to other lines in the proposed 2013 operating budget in a move designed to retain their expertise. The League urges the County to eliminate the remaining obstacles to full agreement among all parties. The resulting release of CDGB funds would ensure the Department of Planning’s ability to continue its excellent work, and would help many municipalities as well.

What we can see from this budget is that the revenue side is expected to remain flat for the next few years or, at most, realize some creeping slow growth in sales and mortgage taxes while we face continued increases in mandates from the State – increases in Medicaid of at least 2 percent in 2014, and an anticipated 2014 increase of $14 million in the pension payment to a $105 million total, to name just a few. With cuts made in the County work force of almost 20 percent over the past three years and resultant cuts in programming, there is little fat to trim. We urge the County both to aggressively pursue some State mandate relief in Albany and to do some serious long-term strategic planning. We can seek opportunities within county government to consolidate departments and increase productivity with technology (as has been done in the Department of Social Services), while looking for other consolidation opportunities with local governments (as with the recent legislation to make it easier to consolidate police forces). In short, we can, and should, seize upon the occasion of the new budget as an opportunity to set the County on a path to better, more efficient government and sounder fiscal policies.

Thank you for your consideration of our concerns.


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