WHITE PLAINS, NY -- In his seventh State of the County Address Thursday night, Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino pledged to continue policies of fiscal discipline, economic growth and leveraging the role of government as a key facilitator in strengthening communities. The county budget today, and the county property tax levy, are both less than they were when Astorino took office in 2010 and he pledged once again to keep spending flat and not to raise taxes for the seventh year in a row.
“I came into office in 2010 on a pledge to stop the madness,” Astorino said. “And guess what? We’ve done that. The record is clear. Spending is down, taxes are down. And we’ve shown that government can work and live within its means at the same time – just like you and me and everyone else.”
Astorino cited several positive economic statistics for the county – nearly 40,000 new private sector jobs since 2010, a drop in the unemployment rate to 4.4 percent and the highest credit rating in the state.
Now in its fourth year, Astorino said his Safer Communities initiative was a model for how government could help as a facilitator in bringing together local resources to strengthen communities through collaboration. Started in response to the school shooting in Newtown, Safer Communities first tackled school safety. It has since gone on to address youth mental health, domestic violence, the heroin epidemic and helping absentee fathers to re-engage with their children. This year, a task force of experts in the field of head injury and youth athletics came up with 10 Best Practices in treating concussions that have been nationally recognized.
“We have shown that government can work for the people,” Astorino said. “We have shown that government can live within its means; deliver high quality services and stimulate economic growth.
“There is nothing to stop us. We have everything that we need, the people, the resources, the will and the vision to put the best of Westchester to work for every man, woman and child in our county today and for future generations,” Astorino said at the conclusion of his address.
Astorino also provided updates on several other key items facing the county.
The Board of Legislators has scheduled a vote for May 2 on the public-private $60 million partnership agreement with Standard Amusements. If approved, Astorino said it won’t be long before residents see “great enhancements and new attractions” at the park.
Astorino said the 60-acre county owned property at the Grasslands campus in Valhalla had the potential to be America’s next great hi-tech research and development cluster. Anchored by the proposed $1.2 billion Westchester Bio-Science and Technology Center and taking advantage of the nearby presence of leading biotech companies such as Regeneron and Acorda Therapeutics, the North 60 project is forecast to create 4,000 new construction jobs, 8,000 permanent jobs and millions in new tax revenue and rent to the county coffers. When finished, the new center will feature more than two million square feet of biotechnology and research facilities, alongside space for medical offices, shopping, a hotel and a Children’s Living Science Center. The lease for the property is now before the Board of Legislators for their review.
FEDERAL HOUSING SETTLEMENT/HUD
In 2015, the county had 649 housing units with financing in place, exceeding the requirements of the settlement by 49 units. Of those units, 588 had building permits or certificates of occupancy, 63 more than required. Despite being ahead of schedule, Astorino said he believed that HUD doesn’t want the county to build the 750 affordable housing units on time because they want a “settlement that never ends.” Astorino said his approach from the beginning will remain – “fulfill the county’s obligations and defend the constitutional rights of our municipalities to control their local zoning.” Astorino also proudly cited a September ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that reaffirmed the county’s longstanding contention that local zoning wasn’t discriminatory when it ruled that “there has been no finding, at any point, that Westchester actually engaged in housing discrimination.”
The night’s most moving moment occurred when the late New York City Police Detective, Air National Guard Staff Sergeant and Harrison resident Joseph Lemm was honored for his sacrifice on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Lemm was on his third tour of duty (two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq) when he was killed by a suicide bomber. Lemm was awarded the Bronze Star posthumously for valor for shielding his fellow soldiers from the blast. Astorino awarded Lemm the county’s highest honor – the Distinguished Service Medal and on June 6 a bronze plaque will be dedicated and permanently placed at the Westchester Fallen Heroes Memorial Walkway at the Kensico Dam Plaza. Astorino spoke to the Lemm family saying they had something greater than the county’s sympathies. “You have a dad, husband and son, whose bravery and service to others will echo for eternity. Your loss is too big to put into words. But his memory is big enough to forever fill your hearts with pride, strength and comfort. He was a Superman to many. A beacon for us all.”