Residents and government officials took to the steps of the Westchester County Office Building on Monday evening to voice their concerns regarding plans to privatize the Westchester County Airport.
“The only argument anyone has made for approving either privatization or the master plan is that it might make the county a little bit of money,” said Jonathan Wang, chairman of Citizens for a Responsible County Airport. “‘Little’ is the operative word here, because the Oaktree proposal, for example, would have added less than 3/10 of a percentage point to the county budget over its forty years.”
Citizens for a Responsible County Airport was one of a number of organizations that sponsored the event, which attracted more than 100 people. Many held signs reading “No to Airport Privatization” and “No to LaGuardia North.”
“Under privatization, the company and the county will have a strong incentive to increase profits, whether by increasing the number of operations at the airport or by cutting costs on things like security or environmental protection,” Wang said.
Wang added that plans for the privatization had been pushed forward without any input from the public.
“That ends now,” Wang said, a statement that earned him resounding cheers from the crowd gathered.
Just hours before the rally, Legislator David Gelfarb announced that he will not support any plan to privatize the Westchester County Airport. Gelfarb, a Republican whose district include Harrison, Rye Brook and Port Chester, spoke during the rally and cited a number of reasons for his opposition, including the length of the proposed lease term.
“I question whether a 40-year lease is in the best interest of the county,” Gelfarb said. “Forty years is an extremely long time to lose control of an asset.”
Gelfarb added that a loss of control over capital projects at the airport was another glaring concern, along with excess traffic and environmental issues.
“I urge my fellow legislators not to support any airport privatization whether this year or in subsequent legislative years,” he said.
Gelfarb was joined at the rally by fellow county legislator Catherine Parker, a Rye Democrat, who called the privatization deal a “fire sale.”
“I’ve seen the Playland deal become a bad deal for Westchester’s taxpayers,” Parker said. “This is Playland on steroids.”
Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino announced the $140 million, 40-year revenue-sharing lease with California-based Oaktree Capital Management in November.
Some members of the Westchester County Board of Legislators balked at the administration’s plan, criticizing the lack of a competitive bid process and calling the deal a gimmick to balance an unbalanced budget. The full lease agreement proposal was sent to the board just days before Astorino was set to deliver the 2017 budget, one that included $15 million in revenue from the airport deal.
“We cannot solve one year’s budget through a 40-year mechanism,” Gelfarb said.
In April, legislators issued a request for proposals from potential private operators for the airport. The deadline for those proposals was originally July 14, but was extended two weeks to July 28, Gelfarb said.
During the legislators’ board meeting that followed the rally on Monday evening, Wang urged the county to make bids submitted in response to the RFP available to the public.
“Without transparency, the public cannot provide informed criticism of the details of this major policy decision,” he said.
Gelfarb said that instead of privatizing the airport, he plans to urge the county’s representatives in Washington to draft legislation that would allow the county to unlock revenue from the airport, particularly with respect to parking.
The rally came on the heels of the unveiling of Westchester County’s draft master plan for the airport, which calls for a $462 million investment on a number of airport projects. While Gelfarb said he had reviewed the master plan, he would reserve his judgment until after the public hearing.
“My concerns about privatization really are not integrally related to the airport master plan,” Gelfarb said. “I’m concerned about privatization as it is, and the master plan, while we certainly have concerns about that, is to me, an issue for another day.”
Wang called the airport’s master plan a “poorly researched, deeply flawed” document. Many members of the crowd gathered at the rally “booed” at the mention of the master plan.
A public hearing and presentation on the master plan will be held on July 27 at 7 p.m. in the Little Theater at the Westchester County Center.