Taxes and accusations of lying, two staples of contentious political discourse, were touchstones in a spirited debate on Tuesday evening between Robert Astorino, the incumbent Westchester county executive, and George Latimer, the state senator who wants to replace him.
When asked about key issues – privatization of the county airport, the closing of the Indian Point nuclear plant, immigration, economic development – Astorino and Latimer kept veering into more personal territory. Who is the most truthful when it comes to cutting and paying taxes?
The debate was the first time the candidates have gone head-to-head to persuade voters to support them in the Nov. 7 general election. About 100 people attended the event, organized by the Business Council of Westchester, at the Reckson Metro Center in White Plains.
Astorino, a Republican who is seeking a third term as county executive, painted Latimer as a public official who loves to vote for taxes but doesn’t pay his own tax obligations.
Latimer, a Democrat who has served in the state legislature for 12 years, said Astorino has mismanaged county finances and will quickly sidestep county work to run for governor.
“I ran for one reason,” Astorino said about his first race for county executive, “to stop the tax madness.”
He said property taxes had been spiraling out of control under previous administrations, including Latimer’s tenure as a county legislator. He said that Westchester now has a strong economy and one of the lowest unemployment rates in New York, thanks to his keeping property tax levies flat for seven years.
Latimer countered that county offices have been decimated during Astorino’s regime and finances are distressed from imprudent borrowing and postponed obligations. He said his opponent takes credit for creating twice as many new jobs as the state Department of Labor can document.
Astorino said Latimer raises revenues “the lazy way, the easy way,” by raising taxes. In Albany, “you name it, he’s taxed it.”
Instead, Astorino said, he creates revenue streams, for example, by leasing county property for a $1.2 billion life sciences complex in Valhalla or privatizing the county airport.
Those are poorly structured, one-shot deals, Latimer responded, “that are breaking the piggy bank” to fill short-term budget holes.
Astorino accused Latimer of evading $46,000 in taxes for five years on a property in Rye City.
“He shouldn’t talk about taxes,” he told reporters after the debate, “until he pays what he owes.”
The accusation riled Latimer.
“He knows how to lie,” Latimer said.
He said his property taxes are fully paid and the property in question was inherited by his wife. It is involved in a family dispute, he said, and “the taxes will be paid when the issues are resolved.”
“I’m not a deadbeat!” he declared to reporters after the debate.
“I didn’t realize the path to the governorship ran through the gutter,” he said of Astorino’s using the family dispute in his campaign.
He repeatedly alluded to speculation that Astorino, who ran for governor and lost to Andrew Cuomo in 2014, plans to run again next year.
Astorino ignored Latimer’s charge that he was more interested in running the state than the county. After the debate, he evaded four direct questions about his gubernatorial ambitions.
“I will support the best candidate who wants to run,” Astorino finally said. “The state, as we all know, is messed up, thanks to the George Latimers of the world that keep taxing us to death.
“So yeh, the state needs to be fixed, but I don’t have to be the person to do it.”