By Megan Wong
For the past 16 years Westchester residents have enjoyed the Cultural Heritage Festival Series at Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla. County Executive Rob Astorino and the Friends of Westchester County Parks made sure this week that the popular spring and summer events would continue.
On Monday, Astorino announced that the Friends have donated $25,000 to help the county pay for this year’s nine festivals, which begin this weekend.
“Friends of Westchester County Parks is proud to step forward and ensure that these important ethnic celebration festivals remain part of Westchester County’s annual calendar of events,” said Elizabeth Bracken-Thomson, chair of the Friends of Westchester Parks’ board of trustees.
The series, which draws more than 200,000 people each year, was in jeopardy of being discontinued because of the elimination of funding from this year’s county budget.
Astorino and representatives from the Friends of Westchester County Parks said keeping the series alive was important for the community. Not wanting to lose the eagerly anticipated festivals, the friends and Astorino collaborated to find alternative funding to preserve the series.
“Our festivals will go on this year and thousands of residents will get to celebrate and experience a variety of traditions from around the world,” Astorino said at the May 13 press conference at Kensico Dam Plaza.
“Because of the Cultural Heritage Festival Series we are allowed to taste and sample different parts of the world,” he added. “Westchester County is proud to be able to share all the cultures and heritages we have.”
Friends of Westchester County Parks Executive Director Joseph Stout said the donation took only one meeting to arrange.
“Once Rob Astorino requested our help, it didn’t take long for Friends of Westchester County Parks to come on board and agree,” Stout said.
Not everyone was pleased that Astorino sought private money. On Monday, members of the Westchester County Board of Legislators’ Democratic caucus voiced concern over the alternative funding.
“I think that private outside funding is a good thing, but overall the necessity for it speaks to a bad budget and a bad budgeting process,” said Democratic Majority Leader Peter Harckham (D-Katonah) when reached by phone. “The budget had been forced through without a thorough analysis. It’s cut out things that were important to the county, such as the festivals.”
Harckham said that about $100,000 allocated for the 2013 series had been eliminated from the budget.
He denied that the Democrats were trying to discredit Astorino’s efforts. Harckham said he did not oppose the outside funding, but objected to the faulty budgeting process.
“If anything, Mr. Astorino seems to be playing politics by coming back and ‘saving’ programs such as these,” Harckham said. “In the end it’s going to come back and bite them.”
Joining Astorino and the Friends of Westchester Parks were the African American Heritage Day Coalition Committee; Antonio Meucci Lodge #213/Order of Sons of Italy in America; The Indian-American Cultural Association; The Organization of Chinese Americans; The Westchester Jewish Council; and the Westchester Pulaski Association.
The series begins this Saturday, May 18 with the Asian Heritage Festival from 12 to 6 p.m. and continues through Aug. 4. For the full schedule, visit http://www3.westchestergov.com/news/all-press-releases/4530-annual-heritage-festivals.