Amid a walkout, Westchester County’s 2013 budget was signed Dec. 7, earning praise from the business community and criticism from nonprofits.
Republican legislators and two Democratic legislators passed the budget 9-0, as eight Democratic legislators walked out of the proceeding, considering the meeting to be adjourned.
County Executive Robert P. Astorino signed the budget later that afternoon.
The $1.7 billion budget, which was put together by the Republican minority, does not increase property taxes and restores 30 of the 126 positions that were to be eliminated in Astorino’s budget.
Legislators and the county executive have been at odds over how to pay for tax certioraris, with Astorino and the Republicans calling for the county to issue bonds, while the legislators prefer to use the fund balance. Both sides are concerned about maintaining the county’s AAA bond rating. Westchester is AAA rated by all three bond rating agencies – Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Group.
Westchester is the only county in New York state with three AAA bond ratings.
John Ravitz, president and chief operating officer of The Business Council of Westchester, lauded the legislators who passed the budget and Astorino for signing it.
“These nine legislators set an example of how well-informed, well-intentioned elected officials can work together,” Ravitz said. “Most successful legislative actions require compromise on tough issues. The budget that has been passed and signed by County Executive Astorino is a model of compromise.”
Ravitz supports Astorino and the Republicans’ plan to issue bonds rather than use the fund balance.
“We need to have our fiscal health in order to bring economic momentum into Westchester,” Ravitz said. “If you start raiding the fund balance, you go down a slippery slope. This is what we used to do and it got us into trouble.”
Ravitz said that the fund balance should not be touched except for major emergencies, like Hurricane Sandy.
“The fund balance is one of the key things that bond raters look at,” Ravitz said. “We have such a bad history of taking money out to put into the operating budget. We can’t go back to that. It’s a failed policy.”
Issuing bonds is needed if the county wants to protect essential services and not raise taxes, Ravitz believes.
The Westchester County Association (WCA) echoed The Business Council, praising the budget for being fiscally responsible without raising taxes.
“The Westchester County Association applauds … those who bravely put public interest ahead of partisan politics to pass a compromise budget,” said Bill Mooney, CEO of the WCA, in a statement. “The 2013 budget demonstrates fiscal responsibility by (not) raiding the reserve fund, important in encouraging economic development and job creation. These are the guiding principles that the WCA has consistently advocated for.”
Amy Allen, managing director of advocacy for the WCA, said that issuing bonds, while not ideal, was the best way to maintain the county’s fiscal health.
“It’s a better idea, we have good credit,” said Allen. “Borrowing in general is not something we think is great, but there comes a point where choices have to be made and that’s certainly a better choice.”
Nonprofit Westchester, an umbrella organization based in Tarrytown comprising 5,000 Westchester nonprofits issued a statement condemning the approved budget, saying that it will severely compromise the nonprofit sector.
“This budget cuts millions of dollars in funding to a wide range of organizations,” the statement reads. “Nonprofits provide vital services that support services for hundreds of thousands of county residents at a lower cost than government and the private sector. Ultimately the county wins from having a strong, caring and quality response mechanism in place. This budget has been hailed as a compromise. A truly compromise budget would take into consideration the needs, capabilities and vulnerabilities of this important sector.”
Chairman Ken Jenkins said legislators are still weighing their legal options and have not ruled out a lawsuit against Astorino over the budget. This would be the fifth lawsuit filed by the legislators against Astorino since he took office in 2010.