Astorino talks about Westchester County budget and elephant in the room

By Bill Heltzel

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So what’s new? Marsha Gordon asked. Any interesting meetings lately?

Robert P. Astorino, the Westchester county executive, had just spent 40 minutes detailing his proposed $1.8 billion county budget for 2017 to 120 or so business people at a Nov. 16 breakfast meeting at Tappan Hill Mansion, in Tarrytown.

And everyone in the room knew what Gordon, president and CEO of The Business Council of Westchester, was asking.

There have been rumors that President-elect Donald Trump will ask Astorino to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s the same federal agency that Astorino has battled for years over a consent decree that requires the county to build affordable housing in predominantly white towns and to ensure that the towns do not use exclusionary zoning practices.

Astorino downplayed the rumor ambivalently.

It’s crazy. It’s insane to hear his name bandied about for a cabinet position. And he does not expect the position to be offered to him.

But, “If the phone rings, yeah, I’ll take the call. I’ll see what he has to say.”

Even so, there is something to be said about staying on a job he loves in a county he loves and not uprooting his family.

“So it’s insane, but it’s nice to be considered for anything like that. But I don’t anticipate it.”

Asked afterward how the rumor got started, Astorino said he knows 13 of the 16 executive committee members of the transition team, as well as Trump, whom he backed for president and with whom he has golfed and been friends with for 15 years.

“So, I think with my seven years of dealing with HUD and seeing the ugliness of that federal agency and suggesting along the way how to fix it, maybe they thought I’d be a good secretary of that agency.”

He also vouched for Trump during his presentation.

“No matter how you feel about his politics, I can tell you on a personal level, he’s a lot different.”

“And I think you’re going to see the pragmatic side of him, because things have to get done.”

Most of Astorino’s talk was devoted to the pragmatic.

He has proposed a $1.8 billion “flat” budget that keeps spending on par with the previous six years. Essential services would be maintained, no employees would be laid off, the $140 million reserve fund would not be tapped and property taxes would not be raised.

That means services such as the Bee-Line bus routes would not be cut and Westchester Community College tuition would remain the same.

The county had to solve a big problem to balance its budget this year. Sales tax revenues came in lower than expected and health care costs came in higher, creating a $30 million shortfall. The hole was plugged by selling county land on Austin Avenue in Yonkers for $15 million and refinancing tobacco bonds for another $15 million.

Next year, in Astorino’s budget, the county will find new revenue by privatizing Westchester County Airport. He has negotiated a 40-year deal with Oaktree Capital Management that includes $111 million in revenue, beginning with a $15 million payment next year.

Tying the 2017 budget to the airport deal could corner county legislators. They have until Dec. 27 to review, amend and approve the budget as well as approve a complicated airport lease.

If the legislators balk, the burden of cutting services or raising taxes could fall on them.

Six weeks, warned legislative chairman Michael Kaplowitz in a press release, might not be enough time to approve the airport lease. While it may be a good deal, a contract of this length and scope requires serious investigation and review, he said.

Astorino also outlined a capital budget that would invest $110 million in parks and recreation, $72 million in buildings and structures and $50 million in roads and bridges.

Long-term, he said the county needs to unlock revenue from county assets, as it did when it sold the Austin Avenue property in Yonkers this year.

A deal to lease 60 acres of county land at the Grasslands Reservation in Valhalla for a $1.2 billion biotech research and medical offices complex could be completed by the end of the year.

The old model of sitting on government property and raising taxes to plug budget gaps, Astorino said, “is so broken.”

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About the author

Bill Heltzel
Bill Heltzel has covered criminal justice, courts, government and sports – as a beat reporter and investigative reporter – for daily newspapers in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He worked for Bloomberg LP in training and sales. He joined The Business Journal in 2016.

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