Despite a once-in-a-century pandemic and difficult fiscal challenges, Westchester County is well on the road to recovery with a rebounding economy, businesses and schools that have reopened and the promise of a bright future.
That was County Executive George Latimer’s message during his 2021 State of the County address Thursday evening at the county office building in White Plains. It was his fourth annual address in the legislative chamber as he nears the end of his first term and faces re-election in the fall.
“We have a long way to go, we still aren’t fully back, but ladies and gentleman, we are getting there and we are united,” Latimer said.
The roughly 70-minute speech touted his administration’s accomplishments and credited the county’s 4,000-plus employees and the Board of Legislators for its success. Latimer stressed how the county managed to add $16 million to the general fund balance this year, increasing its total reserves to more than $200 million, the largest in Westchester’s history, without layoffs or furloughs, service cuts or borrowing to cover pension costs. A voluntary early retirement program offered last summer helped to trim the workforce.
Overseeing the county’s fiscal health has been achieved while maintaining services, undertaking a robust capital projects plan and battling COVID-19.
The 2021 budget set aside $5 million each toward economic development and housing assistance programs, $2 million to help ease food insecurity and $1 million for energy services.
If the early financial projections hold, Latimer said that taxpayers will see a third consecutive year of a property tax decline in the 2022 budget.
“We have all together had to make hard financial decisions and we’ve faced difficult financial times, but we made smart choices with the federal dollars that not only save the county money but also provided essential services for the public when they needed it the most,” Latimer said.
He said his office collaborated with the county’s school superintendents to have faculty, teachers and staff vaccinated so districts could eventually return.
Since Jan. 5, more than 552,000 vaccinations have been administered in Westchester as of Thursday, with the help of about 1,000 county employees who have volunteered at the county clinics to handle the steady stream of residents. Volunteer ambulance corps from Ossining and Scarsdale have also assisted.
“As we have been since Day One of this crisis, county government has had an all-hands-on-deck approach to help Westchester through this unprecedented pandemic,” Latimer said.
The county executive recited a laundry list of capital projects and improvements that have been completed or are in the works, many of which languished for years. In the 2021 budget, about $231 million was set aside for capital projects.
The New Rochelle Family Court project, refurbishment of the Miller House in North White Plains and some $100 million in improvements that will be seen by visitors to Playland this summer have been accomplished during the past three-and-a-half years, Latimer said. There are commitments for the long-awaited Memorial Field enhancement in Mount Vernon, sewer consolidation projects and economic development plans throughout the county, he said.
Through much of the pandemic, the county was also able to open many of its recreation facilities.
“Yes, we have much more to do but I am here to do the job at hand and you are here to do the job at hand, and together united, we will do the job at hand,” Latimer said.
He pledged to continue working to make Westchester inclusive, accepting of all its residents regardless of their background and to provide opportunities. The administration is partnering with the district attorney’s office to combat hate crimes, encouraging residents to come forward.
During his time in office, he has reformed the Human Rights Commissioner’s Fair Housing Assistance Program, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recertified it for five more years.
“For the past three-and-a-half years, our goal has been growing the economy, making sound financial decisions and attracting new businesses to Westchester,” Latimer said. “But we’ve also been creating a community that works for everyone because that is what good government is supposed to do.”
Latimer urged residents to embrace change and progress in the years ahead. Despite the challenging times, that’s how the county will “emerge strong, wiser and better than before.”
“We are not tired and we are not done,” he said. “We are working and striving always to do the job at hand.”