Elected officials in Westchester County “no longer have the luxury of partisanship,” new Democratic County Executive George Latimer said Wednesday morning at the Westchester County Association’s annual breakfast.
In his first address to the county’s business community since being inaugurated on New Year’s Day, Latimer said Westchester was headed toward a number of challenges.
“We have to work across the aisle out of necessity, or we will not succeed,” he said during a nearly hour-long speech and question-and-answer session at the Westchester Marriott in Tarrytown.
Latimer told the crowd of business professionals that “to be an American means you are an optimist. We will get through this moment in time.”
William Mooney Jr., the president and CEO of the Westchester County Association, introduced Latimer by describing some of the challenges he will face. They include a new tax bill that limits local deductions, potential cuts to federal health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, the planned closure of Indian Point by 2021 and the opioid crisis.
“We can no longer do business the way we’ve been doing business, we can’t follow the usual path,” Mooney said. “Business and government alike will need to find new sources of revenue and new ways to deliver services.”
Latimer noted that, at 64, he is the oldest person ever to be elected county executive. But he opened his speech by flashing back to when he was 14 years old. He compared the current climate to 1968, when he said it appeared at times the country was “coming unglued.” The Vietnam War raged on, riots broke out in major cities, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated and the nation’s economy struggled.
“So many of the elements that we live through today, we can look back and say, ‘This is a difficult time, but we worked through it,’” Latimer said. “As Americans we survived the difficult times of 1968, which looked like they were impossible at the time. That should give us some sense of optimism.”
Latimer said he is “not happy with the decisions out of Washington, and I’m not happy with the decision makers.” But repeating that, he added, “is just not going to get me anywhere.”
He led a round of applause for former County Executive Robert Astorino’s deputy, Kevin Plunkett, who was seated at a center table. The county has a history of strong leadership, he noted, and often Republican. He pointed to Westchester’s creation of the Playland amusement park during the Great Depression, the county’s construction of the country’s first limited access highway in the Bronx River Parkway and the success of the County Center.
“This county government and the people of this county have faced difficulty before,” Latimer said. “We have found the resources, both in money and will, to fight through those things and I absolutely believe we will do that again.”
Reasons for optimism today, he said, include the county’s strong health care and education institutes, educated workforce and arts programs.
“We have quality of life here that are persuasive reasons for people to stay in this county and people to come into this county,” Latimer said. “But we have to make a persuasive, universal pitch between the business, nonprofit, government and every other institution and make this a common effort and common approach.”
He cited the county’s all-out pitch for Amazon’s second headquarters last summer as a mindset that should be used “for every single initiative that we launch.”
Latimer threw his support behind increased sharing of government services. While it may mean some jobs are relocated, he said the county and its municipalities have to figure out how to deliver services more efficiently.
A major conversation for the next four years among all the county’s municipalities, he said, will be on “how much service, how much taxation and how much creativity we can find in order to put together the argument that will make organizations stay, grow in Westchester County and be attracted to Westchester County.”
He also gave support to a plan led by the Westchester County Association and the mayors of Westchester’s four largest cities to bring high-speed gigabit broadband to New Rochelle, White Plains, Mount Vernon and Yonkers.
The high-speed broadband “would give us a demonstrable, unique selling perspective,” he said.
Economic development efforts in the county have to be inclusive of the Westchester’s diverse needs, he said, ranging beyond the Interstate 287 corridor to the neighborhoods of Mount Vernon, Yonkers and New Rochelle.
“In pockets all across this county there are parts of our economic development that don’t have a Fortune 500 name on it,” he said. “But we must pay attention and figure out how to have that renaissance include that portion of our economy as well.”