WHITE PLAINS, NY -- Unfunded mandates, soaring public pensions and efforts to raise the minimum wage were among the hot topics discussed at a Board of Directors meeting of the Business Council of Westchester held January 28 featuring special guest County Executive Robert P. Astorino.
In his overview of the county’s budget, Astorino noted that 75 percent of the $1.8 billion budget is for mandated programs leaving only 25% for discretionary spending. “Mandates are out of control,” he said. He also said soaring public pension costs are hurting the county and local municipalities. He noted that public pensions in New York are guaranteed a 7% annual return regardless of downturns in the market. “When the stock market tanks we have to make up the difference,” he said.
On the controversial issue of raising the minimum hourly wage in New York State to $15, Astorino said it “will definitely put businesses out of business,” and added, “Fifteen dollars an hour is a completely arbitrary number with real negative impacts.” He urged BCW members to oppose the legislation adding, “You need to speak out because the other side is very loud.”
John Ravitz, Executive Vice President and COO of the BCW, said that the minimum wage issue will be a top priority when a delegation of BCW members travels to Albany on February 24 for the Annual Lobby Day to meet with legislators. He also noted that the BCW will be conducting a survey of members to gauge the impact of raising the minimum wage would have on their businesses.
Astorino outlined what his administration is doing to keep the county’s fiscal house in order noting that there has been no increase in county tax levy for the past six years which he said helps keep spending in check. Yet, compensation for county employees continues to outpace the private sector. He said the average county employee’s annual compensation is $128,333, of which $48,983 or 62% is for fringe benefits. For county police officers, the average annual compensation is $229,000 of which $98,000 or 75% is benefits.
On the economic development front, 2015 was a record year for the County’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA), which supported 14 projects with total private investment of more than $842 million. Among the major projects supported by the IDA were mixed-use residential developments by LCOR and Lennar in downtown White Plains and an expansion of Regeneron’s Tarrytown headquarters.
Looking ahead to 2016, Astorino outlined plans recently announced by Fareri Associates to develop a $1.2 billion bioscience and technology center on 60 acres of vacant county land adjacent to the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. Fareri, which would lease the land from the county, plans to develop 3 million-square-foot, mixed-use center that would include biotech/research space, medical offices, a hotel, ground-level retail space and a Children's Living Science Center. Astorino noted the project would generate $9 million in taxes per year, $7 million in rent to the county per year and create 12,000 new jobs.
Astorino thanked the BCW for the opportunity to meet with its board adding that he has looked to the BCW for guidance and support on many of his economic development priorities. He said that the BCW has always been there for him on issues that needed to be addressed to improve the county’s economic climate.