In his third and final campaign for Westchester County Executive, Rob Astorino sat down with the Inside Press to explain how his administration has held firm on the conservative fiscal policies he brought to office eight years ago.
Every year since 2010, the two-term Republican has requested a county budget of around $1.8 billion, the same amount last requested by his Democratic predecessor Andrew Spano that also came with a 2.9 percent tax levy increase.
Astorino has instead reduced the tax levy by 2 percent. He’s also frozen the county property tax levy, something he’s quick to point out as a major accomplishment for his administration’s goal to “stop the tax madness.” All of this is so middle-class people have a “fighting chance” to live in Westchester and small businesses have a “chance to survive and thrive,” Astorino explained in our interview. He’s now betting his low-tax platform that won the 2009 election will translate into a positive message that says his administration can govern efficiently and effectively without big spending.
“We’ve just showed that you can do it better without having to be wasteful and having to go to the taxpayer every year saying we need more,” Astorino said in the interview.
But State Senator George Latimer, the Democratic challenger for county executive, said there’s more to Astorino’s tax relief record. “He is arguing that he has kept taxes at zero when in fact they levy is not the only thing the county does,” Latimer said. (For a deeper look at Latimer’s policies and platforms, see the accompanying article about Latimer: https://www.theinsidepress.com/up-close-personal-with-democratic-nominee-for-county-executive-george-latimer/)
Sewer and refuse district taxes have ticked up during Astorino’s administration, Latimer notes, adding “all of a sudden it may not be that you actually paid less.”
Astorino counters that the county’s property tax levy has fallen from $560 million to $548 million under his watch. “Any increases in refuse or sewer district taxes Astorino continued, have paid for the expansion of necessary government services, like the launch of a household material recovery facility at Rye Playland.
The tax-friendly environment Astorino created helped insulate Westchester from New York’s first population decline in a decade, he said, with the county being one of the few to grow last year. It’s also helped 44,000 private-sector jobs in Westchester since he took office, Astorino said in the interview. “We’re inviting businesses to come in, which is making it attractive for people to come to Westchester to start a family, to start a career,” he explained.
Putting assets to work
Lower taxes means Astorino has had to manage the county in a way that finds new revenue and cuts inefficiencies.
He’s cut the government workforce by 16 percent, either through buyouts or “reorganization.” For example, Astorino said a contract he ended for the Planning Department to work on section 8 housing saved the county $1 million a year and put the workers under the state’s purview.
“You’ve got a smaller but more efficient county government,” Astorino told The Inside Press.
He has also hunted for new revenue streams, looking for county assets that can generate a profit with new development. For example, Westchester is allowing the construction of a “biotech village” on 60 acres of vacant land at the Westchester Medical Center campus that Astorino said will create high-tech jobs.
“You can’t sit idly by,” he said. “This is part of our philosophy: if we’re not going to ask taxpayers to pony up more, we still need new revenue to come in. So we’re going to use the assets that the county has and put them to work.”
This strategy led Astorino to announce in November 2016 plans to enter into a public-private partnership for Westchester Airport. Astorino wants to hand control of the airport to a private company for a $130 million upfront payment and a 40-year revenue-sharing lease.
Astorino is marketing the plan as a way to put the airport’s value to use without fully selling it to the private sector. “That’s how you pay for parks and police, daycare and all these other services that people want,” he explained during the interview.
The criticism his plan has faced, including from Latimer, is that the county will receive a one-off payment but lose out on revenue down the road, as well as losing control of airport management.
Another concern is that a private company will want to expand Westchester Airport for greater profit, disrupting the Armonk-North Castle area where it’s located. Astorino insists that no company can “build any major structure without county approval.”
“We want a better not bigger airport,” he said.
One question remaining
Astorino won’t say for certain he’s going to run again for New York Governor. In 2014, he tried to unseat Andrew Cuomo for the position and lost by 14 points. “My thoughts and everything is on election day to run for county executive,” he said. One caveat: “nobody should ever close the door on anything in their future.”
He is feeling confident about the election at hand as well. Throughout his two terms, Astorino has navigated the politics of a Democrat-leaning county. His conservative policies have been in action for seven years now and applied to a range of issues.
What seemed like the defining issue of his administration early on, the HUD housing lawsuit, is now fully in the rearview mirror. The disagreement was never about if Westchester should build more affordable housing, Astorino explained, adding the county has exceeded the federal requirement by building 900 units. “When it was evident that the central planners in Washington were going to try to dictate who lives where in this county and what gets built, that was all out of bounds. That’s what we fought on,” he added.
He said he’s not worried if Latimer tries to tie him to the social policies of President Donald Trump. In the election four years ago, he pointed out, Democrats tried to use Barack Obama’s popularity, winning Westchester by 25 points in 2012, by making the campaign about national issues.
Astorino said voters won’t fall for it this time either. “People are smart enough to realize that neither Obama in 2013 or Trump in 2017 are on the ballot,” he said.
The vision for Westchester Astorino’s bringing to his final campaign for county executive is an “extension” of what got him elected the first time. He said he is confident his version of “fiscal common sense” coupled with the experience of two terms in office will carry him over the finish line once again.
The only question remaining is if voters still want the same thing.