County Executive Proposes Raising Taxes 2% in 1.9 Billion Budget Presented Today

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WPCNR COUNTY CLARION-LEDGER. From the Westchester County Department of Communications. November 9, 2018 (Editor’s supplemental information in bold italics Updated November 10):

County Executive George Latimer released his first County Operating Budget for 2019.

The budget continues funding for vital services for County residents, while remaining within the State property tax cap and utilizing none of the County’s unrestricted general fund balance.

Latimer said: “I am proud to present this budget to Westchester taxpayers and the Board of Legislators – my partner in responsible government. This year, my Administration held more true public input sessions on this budget, and other County matters, than any Executive had before. These sessions resulted in this budget. It is time to move Westchester forward together and plan not just for the now – but for the future.”

In this budget, funds are allocated to keep all essential services for County residents, to pay all County employees the 2019 State minimum wage of $12 per hour, increase support for our daycare and not for profit service providers and implement the raising of the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old.

This is done with a modest 2% increase to the property tax levy – well below the 5.7% tax cap Westchester is afforded, according to an independent audit.

(Editor’s Note: a 2% property tax increase on this year’s $2,400 County Tax on a $650,000 home in White Plains would increase the White Plains resident owning such a home $50. A home assessed at more than $650,000 would pay more depending on your assessment.)

The 2019 budget, projects the true cost of running County Government for the year. Previous budgets, like the 2017 Westchester County Operating Budget had run a $32 million general fund operating deficit

(Editor’s note: a $35 Million deficit budget was passed by the Democratic majority legislature last December under County Executive Robert Astorino. Astorino’s  plan to cover that deficit through leasing the Westchester County Airport have been put on hold by the present County Executive.)

For 2018, the projected general fund shortfall now stands at $39 million.  This budget hole of $71 million (2017 and 2018)  is roughly a 50% reduction in the County’s rainy day fund. As noted by each of the three major rating agencies and the Office of the State Comptroller, continued reliance on these funds is not sustainable.

The 2019 budget includes a host of strong financial decisions aimed at restoring order to Westchester’s fiscal house, including:

·         A County hiring freeze;

·         Renegotiated Contracts;

o   $4M annual savings on Liberty Lines contract

o   New RFP for Corrections healthcare

o   Improved risk assessment

·         Shared Services implementation;

·         Innovate reoccurring revenues like the NuEnergen “Demand Response” program;

·         Collective Bargaining stability;

o   First time ever, CSEA contribution to healthcare

·         County Space Assessment/Consolidation; and

·         Streamlining Capital Program implementation.

This budget includes core beliefs of the Latimer Administration, including:

·         Westchester County Property taxes kept at or below the State tax cap;

·         Basic Westchester County services and facilities maintained for all County residents;

·         Establish a multi-year game plan to ensure long term financial solvency for the County; and

·         Open and transparent communication with all.

(Editor’s Note: The official news release in the budget does not mention the good news of the county sales tax windfall the first 9 months of 2018 and what will be done with this windfall in the 2019 budget.

Westchester County sales tax dollars increased ½% in September with the important fourth quarter holiday sales period starting. Through the first 9 months of 2018, Westchester County has earned  $408,569,137.

If the county matches its 2017 pace the next three months it will take in an additional $136 Million in the three months, earning an all-time County Sales Tax “Handle” of $544 Million. Last year, the county earned $525.5 Million in sales taxes. 

If the county resumes its 6% growth rate it has enjoyed through August the next three months that $544 Million could grow to $550 Million, giving the county enough surplus over last year ( when the county earned $525 Million) to cover the $15 Million hole in the budget from the county decision not to lease the Westchester county airport, and devote $10 Million more towards union settlements recently agreed by the County. (The deficit county auditors announced last spring placed the 2018 shortfall at $37 Million.)

The county itself is highly confident it will reach that $37 Million benchmark. In the county midyear economic forecast in July, the county predicted a $555 Million sales tax revenue, even while downplaying the strong 6% growth rate publicly, not even mentioning it.

The County Executive now faces the pleasant prospect of the sustained county sales tax growth (if it just matches last year in October, November and December) of having the deficit now down to $10 Million or wiped out entirely depending on free-spending  confident shoppers flooding the malls and the bars if the county decides to keep the sales tax “windfall” for a rainy day to make their books look better ( by devoting the “windfall” the fund balance) to the auditing agencies which lowered the county bond rating. It is not spelled out in the official press release on the budget where the windfall in the sales tax revenue is going in the new budget whether to fund balance or to take care of the 2018 budget, (with the tax increase taking care of the deficit).

Moody’s,  one of the bond rating agencies lowered the county bond rating to “negative,” October 18 saying “continued deterioration of (its) financial position resulting from large one time expenses over the past two years.”

There is also the possibility that instead of a 2% tax increase they could lower the tax increase altogether and assume the robust sales tax will continue which would take care of that pesky other $37 million deficit. If you have $30 million you did not expect to have now, and could reach another $5 Million at least, where’s the deficit?)

The budget also includes the following decisions from the County Executive:

·         Realistic Projections of County Finances to Bond Rating Agencies and State Oversight Agencies

o   Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings

o   New York State Comptroller’s Office

§  Comptroller Audit

§  Comptroller Fiscal Stress Report

·         Honest Assessment of Actual Tax Impacts to Homeowners

o   Short vs. Long Term Costs

o   County Taxes vis-à-vis Local and School Taxes

·         Honest Understanding of Mandated Services and Discretionary Services

Latimer continued: “This budget strikes a balance between providing the services all of the residents of Westchester expect and deserve, and keeping property taxes at a level they can afford.  The modest increase included in the budget is within the State property tax cap, and acknowledges the hardship the Federal Government has imposed on the people of Westchester through the loss of the State and Local Tax (SALT) Deduction in the American Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. “

Following today’s submission, the Board of Legislators will now review the budget – including meetings with County departments in the Board’s Committee on Budget & Appropriations. Following this review, the Board will submit any additions or deletions to the budget, vote to move the budget out of committee for a final review and end with a vote by the full Board. The final budget will then be sent to County Executive Latimer for his signature or veto.

Latimer added: “I look forward to working with all of the members of the Board of Legislators to deliver a transparent and responsible 2019 Budget for the people of Westchester County. Now is the time to focus on the future, on moving forward – together.”

County Executive George Latimer, who took office in January 2018 as the ninth County Executive. Using inclusion and openness as a foreground, Latimer is fighting to make Westchester a destination for all people to live, work and enjoy. Learn more about Westchester County by visiting www.westchestergov.com

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