The Westchester County Board of Legislators approved the county’s $1.94 billion operating budget for 2019 Monday afternoon that will maintain essential services but result in a 2 percent tax levy increase.
Following a month-long deliberation among county officials, lawmakers voted 13-4 along party lines. Democrats, who unanimously supported the budget, believe the budget is a productive step to restoring financial stability within the county, resolving structural imbalances, rebuilding the county’s fund balance and continuing to provide vital services.
“The people of Westchester won today,” Chairman Ben Boykin (D-White Plains) said. “This is a budget that will move us forward to begin the process of rebuilding our finances, adding to our fund balance and continuing to provide the essential services that the people of Westchester County need and want and must have.”
The budget contains a spending increase of $98 million over the current year, with the 2 percent tax increase that will raise $11 million toward the $71 million budget gap. With a $32 million deficit from last year and another $39 million shortfall this year, County Executive George Latimer said his budget aims at restoring fiscal order.
“We inherited a budgetary situation which for many years did not raise revenue sufficient to run the county government,” Latimer said. “For the next year, we have a game plan for how this is going to be executed.”
Latimer, who signed the budget Monday afternoon shortly after the Board of Legislators’ vote, said other potential revenues could be realized in 2019 if the state legalizes sales tax on Internet purchases, a move that could raise about $6 million for Westchester. He noted the county could fill the deficit if the state legalizes sports betting and the use of recreational marijuana. Other proposed actions include new fees for Airbnb and surcharges for Uber and Lyft.
More than $8 million will be bonded to pay for anticipated tax certioraris. A temporary hiring freeze will leave an increasing number of vacancies as some workers retire in 2019, which the county expects will net $7 million.
The budget also includes the proposed transfer of the County Center parking lot to Westchester’s Local Development Corporation (LDC) for $22 million, a deal that stirred controversy among lawmakers. While the deal would yield the county a projected $23 million, it would result in the loss of about $2.5 million in annual parking revenues.
Republican lawmakers have compared the proposed move as a one-shot revenue source, similar to former county executive Rob Astorino’s plan to privatize Westchester County Airport, an arrangement that Latimer harshly criticized.
Minority Leader John Testa (R-Peekskill), who voted against the budget, has continually advocated for the county to pursue private partnerships to generate ongoing revenues in lieu of raising taxes and fees on homeowners and small businesses. He said he was “baffled” that his Democratic colleagues want to sell parkland and raise taxes instead of moving forward with “thoroughly vetted partnerships.”
“With the federal government implementing its recent state and local tax law, now is not the time for a tax increase for our residents,” Legislator David Tubiolo (R-Yonkers) said. “I don’t feel comfortable supporting a budget that uses the proposed sale of the Westchester County Center parking lot to fill a $23 million hole.”
A series of approvals would need to be obtained for the transfer of the parking lot, Latimer said, adding that no action would be taken before July 1 to give the county time to see if the state legislature takes action on the new proposals.
“If we can find sufficient revenue to balance this budget without having to make this transaction, we will not make this transaction,” Latimer said. “If we’re able to find those alternative revenues and we don’t have to do the plan, then I think that would an honorable solution to what we face.”
Democratic lawmakers acknowledged that the approved budget isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction to prioritizing public safety, health and mental health, consumer protection parks, seniors, youth and restructuring the county’s finances.
“We have much to do in this county to put things right after years of irresponsible decisions left us with extensive maintenance needs for which money had never been budgeted and with a backlog of capital projects the county desperately needs,” Majority Whip MaryJane Shimsky (D-Hastings-on-Hudson) said. “While there’s more to be done, this is a start.”