Outgoing Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino unveiled the 2018 budget last month. And while the administration kept good on its promise to keep the tax levy flat, many are taking issue with the fact that the budget hinges on roughly $30 million in revenues from a proposed airport privatization deal.
“The county executive’s proposed 2018 budget is unbalanced by $30 million relying on an unapproved airport privatization plan,” Board of Legislators Chairman Michael Kaplowitz said, adding that “we need to close the $30 million budget gap, which imperils both the county’s reserve fund and our good credit rating.”
Credit ratings service Standard and Poor’s affirmed the county’s AAA bond rating, but revised its outlook from “stable” to “negative,” citing the county’s reliance on one-time revenues to balance county budgets.
“This year, there are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat,” said Majority Leader Catherine Borgia, an Ossining Democrat. “This legislature must roll up our sleeves and get to work for the people who sent us here.”
Legislators responded with a revised budget of their own, one that scrapped the $30 million in revenue from the airport deal. Instead, legislators propose pulling $21.5 million from the county’s fund balance and hiking the tax levy by 2 percent, the level allowable under the state’s tax cap.
During a Budget and Appropriations Committee meeting on Monday, Kaplowitz said the airport revenues were “too speculative” to be used in the budget.
Requests for comment from the Astorino administration were not returned at press time.
Astorino announced in November that Macquarie Infrastructure Corp. was selected to operate Westchester Airport in a $1.1 billion public-private partnership. The Manhattan company was recommended by a six-member task force composed of members of Astorino’s administration and the county Board of Legislators.
As part of the deal, the county will get more than $1.1 billion over 40 years, including $300 million upfront. It will be reimbursed $10 million for airport police, with payments increasing 2.5 percent a year for a total of $674 million. The county expects to receive an annual revenue stream of $6.5 million that can be applied to the budget.
“We remain in discussions with county staff and will continue to work with current administration as well as the new county executive and board of legislators to move this process forward,” Macquarie officials said in a statement to the Business Journal.
Macquarie has also agreed to spend $550 million on capital projects, such as terminal improvements, environmental measures, baggage handling and dining options. The lease is written to keep the airport footprint and capacity as is: no runway expansions, keeping the number of gates at six and capping passengers at 240 per half-hour.
“This is the beginning of a long-term relationship with the county and we know that some have questions about how this public-private partnership will work,” Macquarie officials said. “We look forward to an open and constructive dialogue with the new administration and incoming board of legislators.”
Still, nearly a month after Astorino announced the selection of Macquarie, legislators are still waiting to get their hands on the proposal.
“I don’t know the specifics of that deal, since I haven’t seen it yet,” said Catherine Parker, a Rye Democrat who added she had been skeptical of the airport deal since its introduction.
The deal would need at least 12 of the 17 lawmakers in order for the lease to be approved. Parker noted that “under the best situation, (the airport deal) is impossible to have fully approved in time for inclusion” in the budget.
Kaplowitz said soon after Macquarie’s selection that any decision on an airport deal with a private partner should be delayed until the incoming administration of Democrat George Latimer, who defeated the two-term Republican incumbent Astorino, has researched the competing proposals.
Joseph A. Glazer, a spokesman for Latimer, said a deal of this magnitude should not be undertaken without a full public review. Latimer intends to work with Westchester’s legislators and the affected communities across the county to determine the best way forward for Westchester Airport,” he said.
If Astorino chooses to veto the budget, it would go back to the legislators, who would need a 12-vote majority for an override.
For the new budget to take effect, it must be approved by the board by the end of the year. Otherwise, the 2017 budget would remain in effect as Latimer takes office, along with a 12-to-5 Democratic board majority.