Editorial: Painful budget choices in Westchester

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during a Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during a news conference in White Plains. (Nov. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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For the third consecutive year, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino has put forward a 2013 budget with no tax increase. The Republican's proposal, released Wednesday, doesn't include the nearly 800 layoffs that just weeks ago he said would be necessary to balance a $1.7-billion budget.

And the Board of Legislators agrees that taxes won't go up, nor will this budget be balanced by raiding the county's $137-million rainy-day fund for emergencies.

That's good news.

So are plans to keep Bee-Line buses running with no service cuts, keep all county parks open and maintain funding for nonprofit organizations that provide legal services and programs for senior citizens, veterans and victims of domestic violence.

The bitter pill, however, is that this proposal includes 126 layoffs and would eliminate another 69 unfilled positions, with the majority in the Departments of Social Services (75), Parks (22) and Public Works and Transportation (24).

Overall, Astorino is looking to reduce the workforce by 4 percent.

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Other programs on the chopping block include a $3-million subsidy for three neighborhood health centers in Ossining, Peekskill and Mount Vernon, and three of the county's six park curator posts, which seems reasonable given the difficult economic times.

Less desirable are Astorino's plan to raise fees to 35 percent, the maximum allowed, for families that use subsidized day care programs.

And legislators ought to take a good hard look at Astorino's plans to borrow, or amortize, $35 million from the state for pensions and borrow another $13 million for tax settlements: Those line items are best paid for with cash, not the county credit card.

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Astorino is laying much of the blame on the Civil Service Employees Association, the county's largest union. Unlike some other unions, the CSEA has not agreed to concessions, such as contributing to health care costs. While the county executive's request is reasonable -- and the union should eventually agree to pay for what most taxpayers already do in their own jobs -- there are many other pressures on this budget and its $548-million tax levy.

Notably, $97 million in automatic increases, many passed on by New York State, including a $91-million pension tab, $224 million for Medicaid, and labor contracts that include millions more for raises and health care costs.

Revenues, including state and federal aid, are expected to be flat with a slight increase projected in sales taxes. In addition to taxes, the budget relies heavily on state and federal dollars and sales taxes.

Now the line-by-line review begins for the Board of Legislators; it will include three public hearings throughout Westchester.

Legislators have a tough task, especially if they are to restore funds for day care and take a hard look at Astorino's plans for borrowing.

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Budget season is upon us, and there are plenty of hard choices ahead.

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