Lower Hudson Valley County Executives Talk Mandate Reform, Taxes
John Jordan | April 2018
MAHOPAC—The chief executives of Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties discussed pressing issues facing their respective counties and the region, such as high taxes, the opioid epidemic, unfunded mandates and infrastructure needs at a session hosted by Pattern for Progress at the Putnam County Golf Course here.
The program held on April 23 was moderated by Pattern for Progress President and CEO Jonathan Drapkin and featured Westchester County Executive George Latimer, Rockland County Executive Ed Day and Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell.
Unfunded mandates was a hot topic as all three county executives lamented over high Medicaid costs, as well as high school taxes in their respective counties. Day told the attendees that between Medicaid and other costs, the county government accounts for between 10% to 15% of an individual’s tax burden.
All three executives agreed that high property taxes were of great concern, and discussed the concept of shared services as a means of cutting costs. Day explained that Rockland County is working on a shared services plan to save taxpayer money by encouraging greater inter-governmental cooperation. Latimer explained that in Westchester, with over 40 local governments, finding areas of cooperation is imperative, and explained that he plans to make it easier for local governments to partner with the county to deliver some public services. Odell said that her administration has for some time studied possible areas where shared services can reduce costs. In addition, the County Legislature is currently studying possible shared service opportunities with a consulting firm. She added that her administration is focused on bringing in more sales tax revenue from new commercial projects.
However, she noted that there is a negative perception in some circles when it comes to shared services that these initiatives will result in the loss of jobs. “That is the last thing we want to see happen here in Putnam County,” Odell said to the nearly 150 attendees of the program. “We don’t want to see anyone lose their jobs over another initiative that came from Albany.”
Latimer said he plans to make it easier for local governments to partner with the county to deliver some public services.
Odell and Day discussed how their respective administrations worked to strengthen their respective operations and in Day’s case save Rockland County government from near insolvency. Both said that their county governments are on much stronger financial footing.
County Executive Latimer on the other hand said that Westchester is facing a budget shortfall from last year’s budget of $25 million and a deficit this year that could balloon to between $40 million to $50 million when factoring in county personnel contracts, including a contact with the county’s largest union—the CSEA—which has not had a contract with Westchester County in seven years.
He said that at present the county is hoping to finalize some contracts that could raise revenue to help bridge the budget gap, however, he did not rule out possibly seeking a tax increase to close the deficit.
“I have a feeling that I am going to have a full head of gray hair by Christmas time,” Latimer quipped.
On their respective infrastructure initiatives, Odell touted Putnam’s work to build a connection to the Danbury sewer system, which will enable new commercial development along the Route 6 corridor near the Connecticut border. She said that sewer hookup would not only help large commercial ventures, but also owners of smaller commercial tracts of land. Day said that his administration did spend money on infrastructure and continues to do so. Recently, the county announced it is moving forward with the long-delayed construction of a new Highway Department headquarters. In addition, the county is working to consolidate operations and create a one-stop-shop of county services at its Pomona campus.
Latimer, who has noted that the county has a $1.5-billion backlog of county government capital projects, pointed to the significant transit-oriented development projects that have broken ground or are in the pipeline in Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Yonkers, White Plains and Peekskill. He said those developments will help attract the young professionals (millennials) businesses require.
He said the challenge of county government is to find employment opportunities for the poor and unskilled in the county’s inner cities.