County Executive-Elect Latimer Will Review Merits of $1.1B Airport Privatization Deal
John Jordan | December 13, 2017
TARRYTOWN—Westchester County Executive-Elect George Latimer met with county business leaders on Dec. 12th and said that Republicans and Democrats in county government must work together to face new business and political realities.
He also said that because the county budget for 2018 has yet to be finalized, he feels somewhat “hamstrung” in trying to implement some of his campaign promises, including adding staff to the Planning, Public Works and other county departments, at least in the short term due to projected and predicted budget deficits.
Current New York State Sen. Latimer told the gathering of the Business Council of Westchester that he intends to review the details of some of current Republican County Executive Robert Astorino’s public-private partnership initiatives. During the recent heated election campaign between Astorino and Latimer, the 64-year-old veteran Democrat expressed his reservations with a highly touted $1.1-billion Westchester County Airport privatization contract reached between the county and Macquarie Infrastructure in November. However, the proposal has not been ratified by the County Board of Legislators.
The County Board of Legislators approved a $1.8-billion 2018 county budget earlier this week by a 12-5 margin that imposes a 2% county property tax increase, caused largely by its decision to remove $30 million in revenue that was expected from the airport privatization deal. County Executive Astorino vetoed the 2018 budget that includes the first property tax increase in eight years. The County Board of Legislators needs 12 votes to override that veto.
Latimer said that in Washington, DC and in Albany he has seen “an unwillingness to adjust to reality.” Latimer upon taking office in January will enjoy a 12-5 Democratic majority thanks to a rout of GOP incumbent lawmakers by Democratic challengers this past election. However, he stressed cooperation across the aisle at least on the county level.
“This administration intends to respect the Board of Legislators,” he said. “Not operate outside of the two branches of government system. That respect is not only extended to the majority of the Board of Legislators, but to the minority of the Board of Legislators.”
The outgoing Astorino Administration has structured a number of public-private partnership deals, including the privatization of Westchester County Airport, the redevelopment of Rye Playland and the development of the North 60 property at the Grasslands compound in Valhalla into a biotechnology hub. He said what if anything he can do to change or alter those agreements would depend on what stage of the approval process each individual initiative is in.
Latimer said that upon taking office and filling key positions such as County Attorney, Director of Real Estate and an appointee responsible for economic development, he will review all of those public-private arrangements.
“I am not going in to blow up any deals,” Latimer told reporters. “But, I am going in to look at them and if the deals are not officially struck then I am going to have some input on it.”
In terms of the Westchester County Airport he noted that the airport is already being operated on a day-to-day basis by an outside firm Avports, but that the proposal now pending before the County Board of Legislators would reconstruct that arrangement. He stressed that he wants to review deals that are not already struck and ensure the County Board of Legislators has had “full scrutiny” on those ventures.
He said there are decisions to be made concerning some of the county’s chief assets, namely Westchester County Airport, Rye Playland and the County Center. “I am open to creative ideas and I don’t automatically reject any idea that is either on the table now or might yet come on the table,” Latimer said. “But, we need an honest dialogue before we make these decisions.”
Latimer added that the airport privatization was too complex an issue to be handled in 30 to 45 days during budget deliberations. “I am not looking to stretch it out unnecessarily, but I think the Board of Legislators and local officials also have to be part of those decisions. And I intend to make sure that there is enough opportunity for every individual to comment,” he said.
Latimer then promised Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors officials present at the event that they would be among those he would reach out to on key issues affecting the county. “If we are doing something at Playland, if we are doing something at the airport, if we are doing something at the parks, (he promised) that there will be that dialogue. I owe you that respect Leah Caro. I owe you that respect Rich Haggerty. I owe you that respect Barry Kramer,” he said.
In his presentation to the more than 250 attendees at the Tappan Hill mansion, he hinted at a different approach to economic development. He also said that he plans to meet with key business groups to discuss how the county can incentivize business to invest or remain in Westchester County.
He said one of his administration’s main focuses would be on continuing to foster development in its major cities—Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Yonkers and White Plains.
Latimer said that upon taking office he will ask the State Comptroller to undertake a forensic audit of Westchester County operations and also intends to meet with credit agencies to fill them in on the county’s future fiscal policies.
Westchester County Executive Astorino announced on Nov. 30 that three credit agencies recently independently affirmed the county’s strong credit rating, with both Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s maintaining ‘AAA’ ratings and Moody’s maintaining a Aa1. However Board of Legislators Chairman Mike Kapolowitz reported on Dec. 12 that Standard & Poor’s placed Westchester County on a credit watch for a potential downgrade due to the $15-million budget deficit in the 2017 fiscal year and what he called the “best case” scenario budget deficit of $30 million for the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018.
Latimer also said that the county is close to concluding the federal fair housing dispute that dragged on throughout the Astorino Administration and related that upon taking office he will seek to undertake a new housing needs assessment review to ascertain the county’s housing needs and come up with new and “significant” affordable housing targets. In terms of pursuing the development of low income housing, Latimer said that the county would look for financial assistance from the federal government.
Latimer also hopes to secure bi-partisan support and finalize new contract agreements with the county’s eight labor unions.