County Executive Astorino Proposes Budget with No County Tax Increase (4th Year in Row)

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WPCNR COUNTY CLARION-LEDGER. From the Westchester County Department of Communications. November 15, 2013:

County  Executive Robert P. Astorino today released a proposed Westchester County budget for 2014 without any increase in the county tax levy – marking the fourth year in a row that Astorino has submitted a balanced budget that preserves essential services without increasing taxes.

To view a video of the County Executive’s Presentation of the Budget go to http://vimeo.com/79506629

“This budget shows once again that government – just like the taxpayers who pay the bills must do – can live within its means,” Astorino said. “Over the past three years, we have made tough but necessary decisions to bring spending under control and as a result the county’s financial picture and ability to deliver services today and in the future are much improved.”

In addition to holding the line on taxes, other key elements in the budget are also essentially flat.

  • The proposed budget of almost $1.74 billion represents an increase in spending of less than 1 percent from the previous year.
  • Headcount is also up less than 1 percent, a net increase of 6 positions in the operating budget from the previous year.
  • The fund balance is also being held flat as Astorino continues his practice of not using this commonly called “rainy day fund,” which sets aside money for emergencies, to pay for day-to-day operations.
  • The parent share for subsidized day care is also being held flat at 27 percent, which still remains well below the level of 33 percent paid by families in New York City.

“Our departments continue to manage every dollar as if it were their own,” Astorino said.

Astorino’s proposed budget  now goes to the county Board of Legislators, which has until Dec. 27 to adopt a final spending plan.

On the revenue side, the budget benefits from growth in the sales tax. The sales tax is projected to generate $398 million for the county’s coffers. This is up from the $382 million expected in 2013, or four percent.

The budget proposal also benefits from employee contributions to health care that Astorino put into effect for nonunion management and has negotiated with seven of the county’s eight employee unions.  For 2014, the county’s health care bill for active employees is projected to be $95 million, but the cost will be reduced by $4 million in employee contributions.

Astorino noted that the county’s largest union, the Civil Service Employees Association, has still not agreed to a contract with health-care contributions. Astorino renewed his call to them to negotiate a contract with these contributions.

Employee compensation continues to be one of the county’s biggest costs. The average salary of a county worker is $76,414. A private sector employee working in Westchester makes an average salary of $65,185, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Labor. When fringe benefits are added, compensation for the average county worker jumps to $120,170.

As a result of a number of structural changes, such as having employees contribute to health care and replacing retiring workers with new hires who come at lower salaries and make higher pension contributions, the county has been able to put the brakes on spiraling employee costs.

For example, the county saves $62,000 each time it replaces a retiring correction officer with 20 years of experience with a new hire.

“This is what my ‘jobs for savings’ call for the last four years has been all about,” Astorino said. “Our county workers do a terrific job. The problem is they are very expensive. So together, labor and management sat down to work out contracts that are fair to our workers and fair to our taxpayers.”

With Westchester County residents facing the highest property taxes in the United States, Astorino said raising taxes continues not to be an option. Since taking office, Astorino has cut county spending by five percent and the county property tax levy has been reduced by 2 percent. County taxes make up about 15-20 percent of a typical property tax bill. The remaining taxes are levied by local governments and special districts (15-20 percent), and school districts (60-70 percent).

OTHER BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

  • The property tax levy remains at $548.4 million. This is the actual amount that the county collects in property taxes. While the levy remains constant, the effect on property owners can vary from community to community based on different assessment practices. Property taxes represent 32 percent of the county’s total revenues.
  • State and federal aid is projected to increase $13 million from 2013.
  • Mortgage tax is projected at $19.8 million, an increase from the $14.1 million budgeted in 2013 and the $17.2 million now projected for the current year.
  • Pension costs continue to rise for county employees. Astorino is proposing that the county once again take advantage of a state law that allows the county to amortize some of its pension  costs. For 2014, the maximum amount would be $28 million, but this number can be adjusted downward depending on economic trends of the year. The total pension bill for 2014 is $96 million.
    • The cost of Medicaid, the federal and state mandated program that provides medical care for the poor, will be about $223 million, similar to 2013. The net cost to taxpayers will be $214 million due to added federal reimbursement. The state government will reimburse the county for all costs of administering the program, instead of taking over the administration.
    • Day care spending is budgeted at $32 million, up almost $2 million from this current year. The parent share of non-mandated day care will remain at 27 percent, lower than in many other counties in the state including New  York City. The average number of monthly applications is currently at the highest it has been at in four years.
    • There are no cuts to Bee-Line buses, and fares will not be raised.
    • The safety net for the county’s most needy will be preserved though a Social Services budget of more than $559 million, the same as in 2013.
    • Playland will remain open in 2014. Astorino is hoping that the Board of Legislators will act soon on his proposal to turn operations over to Sustainable Playland Inc., a Rye-based not-for-profit. If the BOL does not act,  Playland will continue to be operated by the county’s Parks Department at a loss.
    • All county parks and nature centers will remain open. A related capital project will begin the process of renovating the closed Sprain Ridge Park Pool in Yonkers.
    • Astorino continues to provide funding for various community resources. Among these are the following: ArtsWestchester, $1.25 million; Westchester Library System, $1 million; Cornell Cooperative Extension, $800,000; Hudson River Museum, $700,000; Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, $585,000.
    • There is a new “outreach initiatives” category that will provide $1.3 million to about 30 organizations that provide services for elder abuse prevention, domestic violence prevention eviction prevention, senior services and youth programs.

            A separate capital budget for 2014 has also been submitted, which reflects the Astorino administration’s commitment to maintaining vital public infrastructure and promoting economic growth.

The total capital budget proposed for 2014 is $275 million, an increase of $87 million from 2013. Projects proposed include improvements to bridges, roads, sewers, water districts and the county airport, as well as technology upgrades and renovations to parks.

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