Builders to Westchester pols: Stop feuding
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With the height of construction season approaching, industry officials are calling on Westchester County's leaders to bury the hatchet in a long-running partisan feud that has delayed the creation of hundreds of jobs and as much as $100 million in capital improvement projects.
For more than a year, Republican County Executive Rob Astorino and Democrats on the county Legislature have been wrangling over dozens of big-ticket, taxpayer-funded projects, with each side accusing the other of political gamesmanship.
Astorino claims Democrats are dragging their heels on the approval of $90 million in capital projects that would create about 850 construction jobs. Democrats counter that Astorino is exaggerating the number of jobs that would be created and say his administration has blocked or vetoed dozens of capital projects they have approved since 2010.
Caught in the middle of the dispute are contractors and workers, who are waiting for the projects to go out to bid.
"We really don't care who is to blame," said George Drapeau, vice president of public affairs for the Construction Industry Council of Westchester and the Hudson Valley, which represents more than 500 construction companies. "We need the politicians to sit down at the table, iron out their differences and get the work out on the street."
Astorino: Democrats holding up approvals
The projects in bureaucratic limbo include improvements to county buildings, roadways and playgrounds, as well as repairs to water and sewer systems and bridges. Money for the projects comes from property tax dollars and state and federal funds.
"They are holding hostage projects that would improve the county's infrastructure and put people back to work," he said. "We can't start the process until they tell us we can spend the money. They hold the purse strings."
Democrats say they aren't holding up the process but are making sure that the projects are in the taxpayers' interest.
"Many of these projects are located in districts where he has Republican support," said Lyndon Williams (D-Mount Vernon), who is chairman of the Legislature's subcommittee on capital projects. "We want to make sure these aren't politically motivated projects, but based on merit."
Oros says the numbers speak for themselves -- from January to May, Astorino submitted nearly $119 million in capital projects to the Legislature for approval, but to date only about $20 million worth have been approved.
One of the examples he cites is a $1.6 million bond act for a roof repair at the county's emergency services building in Valhalla, which has been awaiting action by the Legislature since November.
Democrats are pushing to add solar panels to the new roof, which Astorino says is economically unfeasible and will increase the price tag.
Oros said some of the projects have time frames that must be met to receive state and federal funding. "If they fail to act we can lose matching funds from the state and feds, which means we might have to kill the projects," he said.
A former county legislator, Oros said he never remembers the backlog of projects being so bad.
"We never ended the year with a bunch of bond acts that haven't been approved," he said. "We acted expeditiously."
Democrats: Astorino blocking capital projects
Democrats say Astorino is inflating the number of jobs that would be created by the projects and reject his assertion that they are dragging their heels on approving them. They say Astorino has blocked more than $100 million in capital projects they've approved since 2010, including water quality improvements and countywide flood mitigation projects.
"There's at least $50 million in projects just sitting on his desk," said Legis. Peter Harckham (D-Katonah), the Board of Legislators' majority leader. "These are all good projects, and he doesn't want to approve them apparently because they're ours and not his."
Among the projects Democrats say Astorino is holding up: a $9 million project to repair the Sprain Ridge pool in Hastings-on-Hudson, a $1.3 million bond for the restoration of the historic Miller House in North Castle that was vetoed by Astorino and overridden by the Legislature and resubmitted for approval, and an affordable housing project in Mount Vernon.
"All over the county, there are projects that he is just not willing to do," Harckham said.
He admits that there have been some delays by the Legislature in approving capital projects submitted by the Astorino administration to the Board of Legislators, but he added that they are a normal part of the approval process.
"We have a fiduciary responsibility to review these projects thoroughly, not just rubber-stamp them," he said.
Pressure for compromise builds
"It's both sides," said Legis. Jim Maisano (R-New Rochelle), the county Legislature's minority leader. "What we need to do is get the county executive and legislative leaders in a room, lock the door and force them to work this out."
Business leaders say the impasse is hurting the building industry, which is struggling despite Westchester County's relatively low unemployment rate, which stood at about 6.7 percent at the end of April, according to labor statistics.
"It's outrageous that these people can't get on the same page," said Bill Mooney, president of the Westchester County Association, a business group. "Someone has to have the political will to end this impasse and get these jobs out on the street."
Mark Fante, president of Elmsford-based Darante Construction, which has worked on a number of county buildings and water and sewer projects, said his company is waiting for bids to go out on number of infrastructure projects.
"The money has been designated for many of these projects, and politics is holding it up," he said. "It's frustrating."
Most of the projects must ultimately pass through the county's Board of Acquisitions and Contracts, a source of conflict between Astorino and the Democrats.
Democrats want to change the makeup of the three-member board to include the county's independent budget director. Currently, the board is made up of Astorino, board chairman Ken Jenkins and the Department of Public Works commissioner appointed by Astorino. Democrats say that gives Astorino an unfair advantage in the approval process. They have filed a lawsuit.
Drapeau said the backlog of county capital projects has a trickle-down effect on everything from supermarket aisles to dentists' chairs.
"You're talking about engineers, law firms, title companies, suppliers and others in the food chain that service the construction industry," he said. "Every dollar we spend in construction ripples through the economy 16 times. When you have a construction worker getting a paycheck, he can afford to put braces on his daughter's teeth."