Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino delivered his third State of the County Address Wednesday night, with news of a contract agreement with the local Teamsters union highlighting the hour-long speech.
Astorino spent much of his speech touting the drop in county property taxes and spending since he took office and painted Westchester as headed in the right direction despite a number of obstacles working against it. The first-term Republican took a few shots at the Democratic-controlled Board of Legislators as well as Albany, but saved his heaviest fire for Washington.
With every county union out of contract since Jan. 1, Astorino has been pushing for Westchester’s labor leaders to agree to contribute towards their healthcare costs as the county’s non-union workers do. In the seven-year deal (beginning in 2009) with the Teamsters Local 456, members will pay 10 percent of these costs beginning July 1, according to Astorino. That number will jump to 12.5 percent in 2015, while workers hired after the contract is ratified will put in 20 percent.
Meanwhile, workers will see salary freezes the next three years and a 2.75-percent salary raise in 2015. The contract calls for 3-percent raises effective 2009 and 2010 and a 3.25-percent raise effective 2011.
“This is a major breakthrough,” Astorino said, as the audience at the Central Jury Room in the Westchester County Courthouse applauded. “Free union healthcare costs taxpayers $140 million a year, taxpayers who simply don’t have the money.”
The contract still must be approved by the Board of Legislators.
The county executive, who’s clashed frequently with the Democratic majority on the Board of Legislators, took his hardest swing at the eighth floor over a $240,000 bus route in Rye. Astorino sought to eliminate the route when he passed last year’s budget, citing low ridership, but he was overridden by the board. This year, he cancelled the contract of the bus company that provided the route, drawing the ire of the board.
On Wednesday, he vigorously defended this decision, saying the cost of the route and number of empty seats made it more cost-effective to lease cars for each of the riders to get to work.
“When it is cheaper to give your bus riders their own luxury car, it is time to start looking at alternatives,” he said. “To suggest otherwise is governmental malpractice and a complete waste of taxpayer dollars simply to keep the status quo.”
Astorino also called on the board to act on $80 million in capital projects awaiting approval.
He had his harshest words for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is withholding $7 million in community block grants because of a dispute over the terms of the county’s 2009 affordable housing settlement.
“To call HUD’s behavior counterproductive is an understatement to say the least,” he said. “But this is how our federal government apparently believes housing gets built – through intimidation and outrageous demands.”
Overall, Astorino stressed the county’s improving financial situation since he took office, pointing out that the tax levy is actually down two percent and spending is down seven percent after years of increases. He renewed his vow to submit a budget for next year with no tax levy hike.
As he has in the past, Astorino criticized state government for imposing unfunded mandates on local municipalities and called the enactment of Tier VI pension reform “a first step, but frankly not much of one.”
While Astorino has won praise from fiscal conservatives for controlling spending during his time in office, much criticism of the former county legislator and radio producer has centered around his proposed cuts to certain social services programs. He used his address to rebut this notion, praising the Department of Social Services while stressing the effect rising taxes have on seniors with fixed incomes.
“This year, like last year, the county’s commitment to its neediest residents has remained firm,” he said. “While Albany and Washington cut aid, my support to the county’s safety net has not wavered since I took office.”
In a video response recorded before the speech but released later that night, Democratic lawmakers emphasized their commitment to fiscal discipline and faulted Astorino for proposing certain cuts.
“Financially, Westchester County is on solid footing. We are not running out of money. The sky is not falling,” Chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) said. “What we have learned is that doom and gloom projections simply create unwarranted fears in residents and lead to short-sighted recommendations that stop investments in programs that support public health, child care for working mothers, bus lines for seniors, all of which save money for taxpayers in the long run.”
They also questioned Astorino’s commitment to transparency.
Asked after the speech about Astorino’s criticism of the Rye bus route, Jenkins blasted Astorino for calling for Bus Rapid Transit on the Tappan Zee Bridge while cutting bus lines in Westchester.
“We had a public hearing [Tuesday] night where the people of Westchester County, particularly in the Rye community, said that they purchased their homes based on bus routes and the availability of public transportation,” Jenkins said.
He also took issue with Astorino’s assertion that the board was holding up $80 million in capital projects.
“Quite frankly, the administration is not prepared to get one of those projects in the ground,” he said. “We can put all these projects and get them approved today, but there’s just not enough horses on the ground because of the number of people that we have let go over the last two years.”
Astorino opened with a tribute to Sgt. Edward Frank II, a Yonkers native killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 11 of last year.
The speech was the first such address held in the County Courthouse, which was used because it has more seating than the Legislative Chambers.
“There is no truth to the rumor that the jury room was chosen because I get so many invitations from HUD and the Board of Legislators to meet them in court,” Astorino joked.