WPCNR CAMPAIGN 2013. By John F. Bailey. October 23, 2013:
The most interesting statement of the night in the Tuesday Astorino-Bramson County Executive debate was Mr. Astorino saying in response to a News 12 woman-in-the-street question recorded earlier, he would not raise the 2014 budget and would again lower county property taxes 2%.
His spokesperson William O’Reilly told WPCNR Wednesday evening Mr. Astorino misspoke last night in the heat of the debate, saying, “What he meant is that he has pledged not to raise the tax levy. Not sure if we can reduce it with pension pressures.”
Here is the blow-by-blow of the Tuesday evening County Executive debate between incumbent Robert P. Astorino and New Rochelle Mayor, Noam Bramson as WPCNR saw it from “ringside.” WPCNR recommends seeing the debate for yourself in the repeats being run on News 12.
Let’s go to the round by round, blow by blow:
At the Opening Bell, Astorino said the county has turned around under his keeping costs in check philosophy “in contrast to my opponent in New Rochelle, we choose to have Westchester live within our means, sticking to my three P’s, Preserving critical services,Promotion of economic growth, Preserving communities character (against federal attempts at dictating zoning.
Bramson brushed off this gambit, expressing the campaign was about “two different approaches” to county government, notably sensitivity – caring about preserving child care preventing unemployment, saving money by sharing services between communities in a more efficient manner, caring about a woman’s right to abortion and opposing the gun lobby, and creating jobs by improving planning, rezoning to open up areas to bring in companies and create jobs, and improving work skills of county workers to supply the skills companies need. He took Mr. Astorino to task for an administration of “confrontation and conflict” that “hasn’t worked.” Bramson characterized the election as a choice between himself, “a Clinton Mainstream Democrat” and a “Tea Party Representative.”
With three reporters asking questions Round One began:
Janine Rose of News 12 started asking if they thought the Tappan Zee construction was safe for boating public. Astorino immediately took credit for holding out for Mass Transit on the new bridge—later in the debate Bramson mocked this but Astorino countered that by noting that the bridge could not proceed without his vote (as Westchester County Executive), until mass transit was included. Astorino also slipped in that 39 of 41 unions have endorsed him, and his economic growth efforts had produced 27,000 new jobs.
Bramson countered saying “don’t take credit for other people’s work,” and on mass transit, you “have to get mass transit right,” saying Astorino had not paid attention to where mass bus rapid transit was going to go and “how it would integrate into the larger (transit) system. “
Astorino noted that the plan for Bus Rapid Transit (presumably with station locations) being developed by the Mass Transit Task Force of which he is a member is coming out in 60 days.
In Round Two- Gerald McKinstry of WVOX raised the tax question of holding property taxes down.
Bramson waded in swinging, saying property taxes had gone up $800 Million in four years. He preached the homily of sharing services as the way to trim costs of city and county property taxes if school districts and cities, towns “worked together.” He said he would help facilitate that. He did not say if he would dictate consolidations (presumably because the county can’t do that). He said that would be a priority in his administration
Mr. Astorino pointed out how the county has done that, taking over policing for Ossining and partially for Tuckahoe, but it had to come at request of the towns because he could not impose it. He pointed out that a large part of New Rochelle property taxes were due to Bramson raising taxes 7% a year for the last four years while he Astorino reduced the property tax countywide 2% in 2013. Mr.Astorino took the tax-and-spend haymaker to Mr. Bramson’s glass jaw every round.
Then came the shocker of the night:
Astorino responding to a question posed by a woman in the street, recorded earlier by News 12, promised to hold the county property taxes even in his budget for 2014 and cut property taxes 2% again in the new budget early on in response to a citizen-question. As we note at the top of this recap, his campaign has clarified that Mr. Astorino misspoke, that he promises to hold the tax levy at 2013 levels.
No one asked him how though in subsequent questioning.
The Westchester County Business Journal reporter asked whether Governor Cuomo’s Tax Free Zones for college sites might effect the county, or negatively.
The County Executive allowed they could be helpful, but slammed the tax message, saying, “We brought tax stability to this county.” He cited creating a climate where Regeneron is building two new buildings and adding 500 jobs. Authorizing through his idea, the Local Development Corporation, a $250 Million in tax-free lending to White Plains Hospital Medical Center to expand their campus, and similar aid to Phelps Memorial in Tarrytown and Northern Westchester.
Mr. Bramson fired back, pointing out there are still 6 million square of office space vacant in the county. He said the county should be rezoning areas to make locations more attractive to companies looking at Westchester, and work to upgrade skill sets of county workforce to meet companies’ needs.
Astorino deftly brought the development problem back to taxes saying the problem was not what Westchester offers, but its tax structure—bringing up the 109% number that he says Bramson and the New Rochelle government raised taxes in 16 years (since 1996). “That is unacceptable to businesses and homeowners.”
Bramson dropped his guard against this, not even defending it, saying, “We’ve got to get beyond slogans. New Rochelle has the lowest municipal tax rate among Westchester cities.”
(Editor’s Note: The trouble with this is it is not. White Plains at $191.74 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, is lower than New Rochelle’s rate of $198.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Bramson has not explained to WPCNR what his definition of the tax rate is).
Bramson also said Astorino while on the Board in Mount Pleasant presided over tax raises of 50%. Astorino brushed this aside, saying in his (Astorino’s four years running the county) Mr. Bramson in New Rochelle raised taxes 16.7% , 4.1% a year, and school taxes in New Rochelle rose 11-1/2% due to Bramson’s Avalon deal that brought 150 children into the district. “7% (tax increases, combined) is unacceptable.” Astorino also said the county property taxes under his leadership had declined 4.9% at the same time.
And so it went.
Janine Rose returned to questioning the pair on whether a “slightly larger” new Tappan Zee Bridge without a rail rapid transit system was right.
Noam Bramson said, “If that’s where we stop it. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is a train-like vehicle with station-like stops, a conversation that should be unfolding right now.” He expressed that the county should be working harder assuring the construction and design of routes that will not “clog roads assuring livable cities.”
The incumbent County Executive said “No we don’t need it (rail transit).” He said it would be billions more expensive and drive tolls and taxes higher. He said he was a member of the Mass Transit Task Force (that meets this Friday at the White Plains Public Library, by the way). He said the thinking presently will feature “a hybrid of I-287 and route 119 with stops in Tarrytown, Elmsford and White Plains, with shuttles to the office parks.”
Bramson gamely tried to battle the “Astorinoizers” criticizing New Rochelle taxes. “Getting back to New Rochelle, I’ve been elected five times by the people of New Rochelle. They know my record despite the negative and dishonest claims (of my opponent).”
Astorino smiling broadly, said “109% over 16 years.” He said Westchester was one of only four counties in the state that had cut taxes over the last four years , and Westchester was the leader at 15%.
Bramson defended his pay increase in 2006, saying in Mount Pleasant when Mr. Astorino was on the board there, Astorino went along with 8 pay raises for the board and supervisor in 11 years, a 49% pay increase. “This is hypocrisy (on Astorino’s part).
Astorino redfaced, said when he came in to the County Executive office, “taxes exploding has its own living cost.” He said his support of Tier 6 pension reform was an effort to control the pension costs driving up taxes, and said he would work more for pension reform. The incumbent County Executive said he had cut taxes and “bucked bad habits of the past.” He said he cut county staff 19% and gotten 7 of 8 unions to pay a portion of their health care costs. (The 8th, the Civil Services Employees Association, Astorino said later “is running phonebanks for my opponent.” Bramson had the last word, saying he (Bramson) had one raise in 18 years. Bramson did not say how much staff he had cut in New Rochelle.
On a question about IDAs (Industrial Development Agencies), Bramson said they can be “great tools,” if we make sure companies do what they promise to do. He said over 20 years he had brought in hundreds of jobs, and development worth $8.5 Million in revenue every single year. “I know what it takes to develop an economy: planning, infrastructure, land use, skills (in the workforce.”
Astorino retorted he had done exactly that for the county: bringing in 27,000 new jobs. He pointed out how in his opinion Bramson management of the New Rochelle Echo Bay development had resulted in loss of major revenue, by eliminating hotels and the amount of retail planned. Bramson, said the waterfront would be revitalized, creating a park. Astorino said for half a day the Echo Bay waterfront would be mudflats (suggested dredging has been eliminated from the plan).
Asked about plans for the future, Bramson captured some momentum in the debate, saying “What are we going to do for the future? It is wrong to cut child care. Wrong to close neighborhood health centers, wrong to permit gun shows, wrong to fail to protect reproductive and abortion clinics.These are dumb choices”
Astorino countered, saying private sector workers average $63,000 a year, public sector employees in the county average $73,000, and when public employee benefits are added, the cost goes up to $110,000. “You have to strike a healthy balance between tax raises and expenditures.”
The county HUD settlement produced an interesting exchange. Astorino defended his defiance of HUD policy on adjusting zoning in communities HUD has found to be allegedly discriminatory in its zoning against the kind of buildings that can provide affordable housing. Astorino aid first that the county has only spent $13,908 in legal costs in fighting HUD on the terms of the proposal. He said the county already had 400 of 750 units on the way. Reading from HUD letters on camera, he quoted HUD backing his position that HUD wants more than 750 units. He said, “We will not allow the federal government to control land use (in the communities).”
Bramson saw an opening and wound up, saying it was time “to put this behind us.” He accused Astorino policy of losing $20 million in withheld government funds. Bramson repeated he will work with communities to find ways to get the housing into the communities. Astorino accused Bramson, in Astorino’s rebuttal of a policy of “capitulation and compromise.”
On the values issues, Bramson hammered that Astorino’s stances on protecting abortion clinics, allowing gunshows, cutting child care were against national policies and county sentiment.
Astorino said he took those positions because the abortion clinic protection legislation he vetoed was an invitation to lawsuits against the county; Gunshow promoters had a right to put on gun shows, and they were allowed to do so only after county
At the final bell, Bramson speaking first made a final statement, saying “What you do counts. We have to cut costs and we can afford to be better.” He accused Astorino of fomenting an atmosphere of “unproductive conflict we don’t need. I will work with people to get things done.”
Astorino said, “64% of county persons polled recently said they think the county is on the right track.” Bramson has “pummeled the taxpayers (in New Rochelle) and he (Bramson) will do it again. I will stand up for private property owners. I will stand up for the taxpayers