Taxes Steady in Astorino’s Proposed $1.8B 2017 Budget
County Executive Rob Astorino unveiled his $1.81 billion operating budget for 2017 last week that maintains taxes, jobs and services at current levels but relies on a recently proposed airport lease deal to balance the spending plan.
For the seventh consecutive year, Astorino released a budget with a zero percent tax levy, keeping his pledge when he took office to hold taxes in check. Total spending proposed for next year is slightly under the $1.819 billion level in the 2010 budget that he inherited when taking office.
“It certainly promotes economic growth because it unleashed some of the potential of some of our property and that is what we need to do,” Astorino said of his 2017 budget proposal. “If we’re not going to increase the county tax levy, which is a policy decision, then we need to find other revenue sources because our expenses do grow each year.”
In order to make up for a projected $20 million sales tax revenue shortfall for this year and an additional $10 million in healthcare costs, Astorino said that the county sold a property it owned on Austen Avenue in Yonkers for $15 million to make up for about half of the budget gap. It can also refinance its tobacco bonds to generate another $15 million.
On Nov. 3, the county executive released details of a proposed 40-year, $140 million lease with Oak Tree Management, which would operate the airport and make the necessary improvements to the facility. Terms of the lease call for a one-time upfront payment of $15 million to the county in 2017, followed by $4 million a year for the next four years, he said.
Westchester would receive $2 million annually for the remainder of the lease after that.
The deal ensures that there is no expansion of the airport over the next 40 years by maintaining the current number of runways and their existing length. The airport will also continue operation with four gates. By keeping the airport’s size in check, there will be no degradation of the environment or additional impact on nearby homeowners, Astorino said.
Astorino mentioned that the county isn’t required to put the proposal out for a Request for Proposal (RFP). He said he is confident that a full Board of Legislators review will determine that it is a good deal for the county.
“We have decided, since we’re not asking for additional tax increases, then we’ve got to find the revenues,” he said.
Democrats on the Board of Legislators were immediately skeptical of the airport plan to balance the budget. Board Chairman Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers) said while he applauded the continued steady tax levy and continuation of current services proposed for next year, there are an overwhelming number of unanswered questions.
He said the board only received the proposal on Nov. 3, an extraordinary short period of time to sift through the details of such a complicated lease and determine whether it is beneficial for the county budget for next year and for several decades.
“We want to make sure that with a 40-year deal we’re maximizing value for the taxpayers,” Kaplowitz said. “Are we getting every penny that we’re possibly entitled to? I don’t know. If there’s no RFP, and if legally he didn’t have to so he did not have to engage in searching the country or the world for other potential bidders, I don’t know if the money they’re getting is enough.”
He added that no other airport in the continental United States operates under such an agreement, another potential concern. Oak Tree does operate the airport in San Juan under a similar arrangement, Astorino said.
Lawmakers will diligently vet the deal before making any decisions, Kaplowitz vowed.
Legislator Kenneth Jenkins (D-Yonkers), who announced his plans in the summer to run for county executive next year, criticized the proposed budget for its continued borrowing. The budget includes about $3 million in borrowing to cover pension costs.
“The county executive’s approach to financial management has led to another budget proposal that relies on accounting gimmicks, like the current airport alteration proposed by the county executive, and the fiscally dubious practice of borrowing for operating expenses that has been discouraged for the last several years,” Jenkins said.
However, Legislator Sheila Marcotte (R-Eastchester), chair of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, said exploring turning county property into revenue is a good idea.
“As unfunded mandates from Albany and the costs of goods and services continue to rise, we have to find alternative revenue streams to fund county government,” Marcotte said. “Optimizing revenue at an existing and critical county asset like the airport is a smart and resourceful way to do that.”
Elsewhere in the budget, Department of Social Services spending increases by $7 million. There will be no increase in parents’ share for daycare services, Astorino said.
Public hearings will be held at New Rochelle City Hall next Tuesday, Nov. 22, H.C. Crittenden Middle School in Armonk on Nov. 30 and Wednesday, Dec. 7 at the county building in White Plains. All hearings begin at 7 p.m. A final budget must be adopted by Dec. 27.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/