Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, newly sworn in for his second four-year term, offered something of a State of the County address as he spoke this morning before the Business Council of Westchester at Tappan Hill in Tarrytown.
The state of the county is, in a word, healthy, and Astorino emphasized that his previous focus on those “three P’s: Protect taxpayers, Preserve services, and Promote economic growth” will continue with the most attention on economic growth.
This crowd, a full house including business leaders from every sector as well as District 3 Legislator Michael Smith and other county leaders, of course finds itself most invested in these fiscal matters.
Astorino said he’s entering a new term with a climate better than when he first started in 2010, with a slimmer, more stream-lined government body.
“The county operating budget today is less than four years ago, down from $1.8 billion to $1.6.” This was achieved, he said, not through cuts but by “going under the hood” and retooling operations, reducing the workforce by 14 percent (though with minimal lay-offs) and negotiating union contracts. Seven of the eight unions have struck deals, with the eighth “working like crazy to get me out of office,” Astorino said, adding that he expects a deal with them as well soon.
In his last term, he cut homeless shelters in the county when he saw statistics that the beds were half-empty, a downsizing from 12 to ten shelters, which are now reportedly at 80 percent occupancy, he said.
While the county government may be smaller, the job growth overall in the private sector is growing at a rate of 30,000 new jobs created since 2010. Astorino was clear to point out that it's not the government creating the jobs, but helping businesses thrive and hire.
“The county does not create jobs, but we can serve as a catalyst and a broker," he said.
Astorino cited programs from the Local Development Corps investing in nonprofits such as hospitals and universities to the Industrial Development Agency, working, for example to convince Pepsico not to move to Texas but stay here in Purchase.
“What can we do to help make your business more successful?” Astorino asked the room full of fine-suited folks, as the surprise snow accumulated out the plate glass windows behind him in the banquet hall. “This is economic development from the ground up, that doesn’t cost taxpayers anything.”
The property tax levy, he noted, has gone down on his watch, with a two percent cut. The new New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has been talking tax hikes, and Astorino said he met yesterday with two city-based businesses who want out.
“I never thought the mayor of New York City would be a major part of our economic development team,” he joked.
Another big name in the news right now, whom he added is actually a friend, is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the butt of some laughs as Astorino joked that he was supposed to be the guest of honor this morning but was….”stuck in traffic.”
“Something like that,” referring to the scandal associated with Christie's team of affectively turning Fort Lee into a parking lot as political retaliation, “should never happen in government," Astorino said. That said, “I think he handled it well.”
As far as laying out a path for Westchester in the four years to come, Astorino started with the major transportation project of our region, if not the country itself, right here along with our Tappan Zee Bridge rebuild and the I-87/287 “corridor,” far more than a link between Tarrytown and Nyack but a major hub for business growth, a "gateway to Westchester's future."
In the mix of his talking points were a few visual jokes – a fleeting and unrealized idea to merge public works and technology divisions in the county went along with a Powerpoint slide of a nicely leather-padded toilet with a computer and fax.
Then there was the jab at Governor Andrew Cuomo's talks of legalizing medical marijuana with the image of a few bearded guys driving with a giant blunt. "Forward their resume to the governor," he said.
Realistically, Astorino said, addressing an audience question, consolidations to avoid agency redundancies (down to local levels with fire houses and ambulances and the like) are easier said than done. “Everybody loves their own; they love to complain about their taxes, but they still want their own.”
He did though offer the example of Ossining, who successfully combined town police with county.
Mandates, particularly those hissed-at unfunded ones, were another matter a guest asked about. “We’re all feeling the pain,” agreed Astorino. “We’re the ATM for Albany through our property taxes.”
Then there’s the controversial matter of energy and where we get it, particularly Entergy and it’s overdue renewal for operation of Indian Point. Astorino said he not only supports the nuclear power plant which serves our region as well as the city, but he’s proposing the creation of another plant.
“There’s not enough hot air and wind to go around,” he said, adding with a laugh, “though if I talk a little more…”