You’d think the campaign for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino would be chastened by the Westchester Fair Campaign Practices Committee’s finding that a recent television ad attacking New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson was replete with false statements.
But the Astorino campaign doesn’t seem to care when attacking his Democratic opponent.
In fact, campaign spokeswoman Jessica Proud says the campaign will continue to run the ad, which the nonpartisan committee found falsely maintains that Bramson was responsible for raising New Rochelle’s sales tax, its library tax, its sewer tax while also giving himself a city car to drive and health-care insurance for life.
According to the findings, the Astorino representatives even agreed that it was untrue that Bramson had increased the sewer tax paid by New Rochelle residents. That happens to be a county tax imposed by the Astorino administration that has risen 66 percent since Astorino took office.
“The TV ad is accurate and it will remain running,” Proud wrote in a statement issued to the press. “We welcome further discussion about Mr. Bramson’s record in office.”
The campaign’s disregard for the committee’s finding surprised Susan Schwarz, the committee’s chairwoman, who has served on the panel since 1996.
“A candidate should correct something that is incorrect,” said Schwarz, of Tarrytown. “If a candidate wants to run an honest and fair campaign, they should make their ads fair. We like to encourage a clear, fair discussion of the issues. There is plenty to say. You don’t need to take things that aren’t true, and then mislead the people.”
Bramson’s campaign spokesman, Barry Caro, said he hoped the Astorino campaign would withdraw its deceptive campaign ad.
“The ad is blatantly and provably false,” he said. “It’s very very unusual for a campaign to continue airing such an ad. But it’s par for the course for Astorino.”
Astorino, who has staked his campaign on his administration’s 2 percent reduction in the county tax levy over four years, used the 30-second television spot to paint Bramson as a political leader who raised all sorts of taxes while feathering his own nest.
The untruths were manifold, the committee found.
The biggest whopper involved Astorino’s claim that Bramson had raised the city’s sewer tax. What Astorino failed to explain was the fact that New Rochelle is served by Westchester County’s New Rochelle sewer district. It was Astorino who raised the sewer tax 66 percent for New Rochelle residents, since he took office in 2010, with the rate rising from $25.07 to $41.65 per $1,000 valuation.
In his signed budget message to the county Board of Legislators, dated Nov. 15, 2011, Astorino notes that only the New Rochelle sewer district will have a tax levy increase in 2012, as a result of a consent decree with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Proud said the ad was accurate because Bramson supported the county government when it signed the consent decree in 2009 to clean up Long Island Sound, under the administration of his predecessor Andy Spano.
“There was a $160 million project passed before Rob took office,” she said. “Andy Spano was sued by the EPA for too much nitrogen in the Long Island Sound. Under a federal consent decree, the county was obligated to clean it up. Noam supported the sewer tax increase and the project: If you remove the debt from this project the operating costs are flat.”
One of the speakers in the ad laments Bramson’s role in raising the city’s library tax. Here’s another example of Astorino’s deception. The New Rochelle Library, like a school district, is a separate taxing jurisdiction. New Rochelle voters cast ballots to approve the library budget, and its tax rate. The City Council, of which Bramson is a member, has no power over the library budget.
Proud maintained the ad was accurate because Bramson had supported taking the library budget from the city budget, and making it an independent taxing jurisdiction, which then had the power to ask voters to approve higher taxes in a citywide referendum.
The ad further states that Bramson increased the city’s sales tax, but that also was not true. The sales tax of 8.375 percent includes the 2.5 percent city sales-tax, which has not gone up during Bramson’s tenure. The only increase was the 0.125 increase in the regional MTA tax, over which the New Rochelle City Council has no control.
“The library tax, sewer tax, and garbage fee went up dramatically under his watch, but evidently he knows nothing about them,” she wrote.
The attempt to tar Bramson as a selfish public official looking to enrich himself also fell short of the Fair Campaign Practices’ truth test. While Astorino claimed that Bramson “gave himself,” a city car, the committee found that Bramson got a car according to city policy enacted before he took office. The same goes for the health insurance benefits, which were set before he took office.
Schwarz says the committee didn’t like the insinuation that Bramson had given himself these perks.
“It was very clear that was not the case,” she said. “He may have a city car, and he does drive it. But he didn’t give himself a car. This is politics. And it’s getting dirty.”
Proud, however, charged that the committee was biased, maintaining that among 16 members, 14 are registered Democrats, one is a registered Republican and one is an independent.
“I clearly think when you have a board made up overwhelmingly of Democrats is supportive of the Democratic candidate and does not take into consideration indisputable information, you can only say it is biased. If we knew the committee was made up that way, I’m not sure we would have participated.”
But Schwarz said the panel has developed a reputation for nonpartisan fairness, as reflected by its findings, which can be found online at its website.
Both Republicans and Democratic candidates have been found to have violated its guidelines.
“They can think whatever they want,” she said. “We are an accepted group of nonpartisan citizens. Some are registered in parties. Some are not. We are mostly perceived as fair.”