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Hundreds Attend Westchester Budget Hearing in Cortlandt

Westchester lawmakers hosted the second of three public hearings at Cortlandt town hall Thursday.

Hundreds Attend Westchester Budget Hearing in Cortlandt Hundreds Attend Westchester Budget Hearing in Cortlandt

Westchester County Police Sgt. Michael Hagan doesn’t believe residents need to look real far to see what further cuts to his department will mean.

“In order to tell you what the future impact is going to be, I can tell you what the recent impact has been,” said Hagan, who heads the county Police Benevolent Association. “Right now, between the months of September and May, no county park has a police officer patrolling it. No county bike path has a county police officer patrolling it. The only way you’ll get a county police officer to come around is to become a victim of a crime. “

Hagan was one of a couple hundred people who crammed into Cortlandt town hall for Thursday’s budget hearing on county Executive Robert Astorino’s  $1.7 billion budget for 2013. The hearing was the second of three scheduled by the county Board of Legislators. The final hearing is scheduled for Dec. 5 in White Plains.

Astorino’s proposal, which calls for no tax levy increase, would cut 189 positions. Of those job cuts, 126 would come in the form of layoffs. 

Hagan said his force has already lost 17 officers since the Astorino took office in 2010 and would lose five more if this current budget proposal passes.  

Hagan also said the proposal doesn’t leave enough funding to replace officers who might retire. He expects about 10 officers to retire.

Hagan said response times have already slowed considerably and patrols with a single officer overseeing several parks have become the norm.

“We’ve had several incidents where the officers have lost total control of the crowd because we don’t have enough officers to patrol—one guy, maybe two,” Hagan said.

 In addition to the layoffs, the proposal calls for:

$3 million  in funding cuts for the three neighborhood health centers in Ossining, Peekskill and Mount Vernon. Astorino said these centers have strong surpluses, combined assets of  $57 million and the salaries of their three top executives total nearly $1 million.

  • The budget would reduce funding to the Cornell Cooperative Extension to $600,000, from $990,000.  
  • Allocate $26 million to the county’s daycare program, which is the same amount that was earmarked to the program last year. Parents who receive non-mandated services will contribute up to 35 percent of their income above the poverty level, which Astorino said is the same level paid in New York City and 20 other counties pay. He said the program is expected to be $3 million over budget this year.
  • All county parks and nature centers will remain open, but the number of curators will be reduced from six to three.
  • Playland will remain open in 2013, as the county proceeds with the Astorino initiative to turn operations over to Sustainable Playland Inc., a Rye-based not-for-profit that plans to retain the traditional summer amusements and introduce new activities to make the 100-acre park a year-round destination.

Laura Graeber, a Cortlandt Manor resident and a kindergarten teacher at the Ossining Children’s Center, came to the hearing to support the county day care program.

 “I’m very concerned that if they continue to raise the amount of money for daycare, that families that attend the Ossining Children’s Center won’t be able to come,: Graeber said. “They rely on the subsidies from the government, particularly from our county. If we lose those, I’m concerned that many families will rely on home-run daycares that may not be licensed, or they might have to leave them with family. If they didn’t have that option, then they might end up losing their job.”

 Howard Milbert, executive director of the Ossining Children’s Center and co-president of the Westchester County Early Childhood Directors Association, said he wanted to county lawmakers increase the amount of slots for low income families in Astorino’s budget and to keep childcare fees at affordable levels. 

 He also wanted the county to unfreeze funding levels for Title 20 for new families.

“We hope the Title 20 scholarship will be opened up again,” Milbert said. “This is the first time this freeze has happened—12 months solid—and now it looks like families who are on the scholarship are being grandfathered in. But the new families who meet the income criteria when they walk through door aren’t eligible.”

Barbara Sack, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County, said the reduction of funding proposed in Astorino’s plan would result in further layoffs in the 4-H, horticulture pest management, master gardener and nutrition education programs.

“We are doing more with less,” Sacks said. “ We have cut down our staff...we are moving in order to bring down the rent, but we can’t reach that diminishing point of return where we can no longer provide the services and we are coming critically close to doing so.”

Desta Lakew, director of development at Open Door Family Medical Centers , said community health centers served an important role in the county and that Open Door is nationally recognized as a health care delivery model that works across the country. She said community health centers also deliver state mandated screenings and treatments at good value. 

“The elimination of the funds doesn’t save the county any money—because these services are mandates, the county is going to have to find someone else to deliver the services,” Lakew said. “Right now, on the table, the recommendation is that the health department can deliver these services in White Plains. We think that’s a problem because not all of the residents in the county live in White Plain and can’t access it.”

Suzanne Evans, a White Plains resident, said the needs of all taxpayers in the county need to be considered when the budget is passed next month.

Property taxes aren not means tested," she said. "No matter how little you are, you pay. Everybody should be represented. There are people who have to decide 'do I buy my child shoes or do I buy them school supplies because I can't afford both.' Those people have to be considered in the whole equation."

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