County Executive George Latimer vowed that Westchester will bounce back from a coronavirus-battered economy, outlining steps his administration has taken to help business owners and residents survive and recover from the pandemic.
During his State of the County address Thursday evening that had been delayed twice since April, Latimer touted his team’s accomplishments through the health crisis and lauded county employees and health care workers who have helped Westchester weather the storm.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a long seven months, it’s been a long 2020,” Latimer said before the Board of Legislators and staff in an otherwise empty lawmakers’ chamber at the County Office Building in White Plains. “Plans we had were sidetracked. Ships have gone astray, but we find our way back, because that is what we always do.”
When New Rochelle was one of the first COVID-19 hot spots in the nation, Westchester County’s Department of Health sprang into action, conducting initial home visits for diagnostic testing and collecting specimens at facilities with clusters, Latimer said. Personnel worked with the state to establish the first mobile testing site and initiated a comprehensive case investigation and contact tracing program.
He said the county has set aside $10 million from federal funds for Westchester County Business FIRST, a program to provide grant money for small businesses and nonprofit organizations with less than 100 employees that have been hurt by the pandemic.
The county developed the Westchester Food Security Initiative, which provided $4 million in support to food pantries, restaurants and food delivery services, he said.
To help schools in the county reopen, the administration established a working group over the summer consisting of superintendents and other school officials.
During the spring and into the summer, the county was able to restore some recreation for its residents, opening golf courses and later the county’s two beaches and four swimming pools.
“These last few months have been trying,” Latimer said. “We have buried our neighbors and seen our loved ones suffer, we’ve seen fear in our children’s eyes, and through it all we have worked every day to carry this county through dark times.”
Other accomplishments that Latimer listed apart from the pandemic-related responses included the Opportunity Zones Program to spur economic development and provide tax incentives; re-establishing the Urban County Consortium; being awarded federal CDBG grants for the first time in a decade; and instituting the shared services initiative to help local governments and school districts to partner to find savings.
Latimer said his administration is focused on affordable housing, keeping a record of new units that have been created. It has also created a system of updating the affordable housing database as developments progress from funding to completion. In his nearly three years in office, there have been 2,089 affordable housing units proposed, approved or built in Westchester.
Last week Latimer had announced a $231.8 million capital budget plan for 2021, including money for road and bridge repairs and water and sewer-related projects.
However, the county executive did not raise the issue of the looming deficit the county must close by the end of the year, likely to be well in excess of $100 million.
“We have closed the 2020 budget with no layoffs, no furloughs and no service cuts,” Latimer said. “We now turn our attention to the 2021 budget. What is in store is still unclear. Much depends on Washington and Albany. But I can tell you we are spending long days and nights advocating for federal and state help and we won’t stop until we do what is best for each of you.”
The administration is tentatively scheduled to present its 2021 operating budget on Nov. 12.
On a positive note, he said Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, the county’s ratings agencies, have affirmed Westchester’s strong position for its 2020 bonds, he said.
“What that shows is that we are strong, we can weather this storm,” Latimer said.
“Can we weather it forever? No. But at this time, considering the path we have traveled through the pandemic, our rudder is staying the course.”
Despite the challenges, the county executive said Westchester will emerge from this period stronger as long as everyone works together.
“We yearn for the raging storm to calm,” Latimer said. “We long for still waters. The challenges we face are many and great, and they will take time, but I’m vowing to you, they will be met.”