In the heated and at times overheated process of proposing, debating, amending, and passing a budget for Westchester County, most attention has centered on funding this program or that; keeping or eliminating one budget line or another.
Unfortunately, what was lost in the clutter of that debate is that the real challenge for all elected officials now and for the future, must be that of making government smaller.
Taxpayers can no longer afford the superstructure of government and all the costs associated with it, that has been constructed in Westchester County’s case.
Westchester residents are the most heavily taxed in the nation and the relief they demand, and deserve, will not come solely from trimming around the edges of budgets and plucking out one cost or another.
Tax relief, meaningful tax relief, will come only from making fundamental structural changes to the model of government and by reducing spending in smart, future-oriented ways.
The Democratic Supermajority (12 votes of 17) did not see it that way in voting on this year’s budget. They overrode 247 of 249 of County Executive Rob Astorino’s vetoes despite passionate disagreement from the five Republican members of the County Legislature, whose nay votes went for naught in the face of strictly party line Democratic override votes.
Bad news for taxpayers.
There are two glaring examples where the Democratic leadership failed most disappointingly to show that they ‘got’ the taxpayers mandate to reduce taxes by reducing the cost of government and the size of government.
The Section 8 Program. The County has contracted with New York State since 1975 to administer the Section 8 housing subsidy program, a Federal program. The Astorino Administration properly proposed to return this program back to the State to reduce County spending, and allow the State to issue a Request for Proposal ( RFP) to have a private non-profit agency administer the program.
This sensible plan would have insured the provision of services to Section 8 clients while relieving Westchester County of some $500,000 in annual administrative costs, as well as significant long term ‘legacy’ obligations of pension, sick leave, and health costs for Section 8’s nearly 40 employees.
Unfortunately the Democratic Supermajority overrode the Astorino veto and restored the program to county auspices, returning all those costs and obligations to the County government.
Mental Health Services – Again there are dedicated and experienced community service agencies whose core mission is to provide professional mental health services in the Westchester community.
That was made eminently clear during budget hearings when the director of one of Westchester County’s most highly regarded such agencies assured legislators of his organization’s long term commitment to community mental health services in the county. He said that if the County were to close its own mental health clinics, his agency would ‘roll up their sleeves and help,’ providing mental health services in the Westchester community just as they have been doing for years. This reminds us of the important role professional, not-for-profit human service agencies play in our community.
We cannot afford either in financial terms or in public policy terms to continue the illusion that government can be the predominate provider of all services for all needs.
We cannot afford to lose opportunities to build more smart alliances and partnerships with community organizations and other agencies that can play an effective role in serving the Westchester community. Nor can we lose sight of the critical importance of those partnerships in our goal of reducing the size of Westchester County government and to control property taxes.
The budget which the Democratic majority approved over the County Executive’s vetoes reduced taxes, but without a corresponding reduction in spending. That failure does nothing to address the long term, deep rooted problem of Westchester County; being the highest taxed County in the nation is simply the result of too much spending, and too big a government.