Westchester County legislators on Monday gave County Executive Rob Astorino the go-ahead to sue the federal government.
Approved at a special morning meeting of the Board of Legislators, the measure could help the county prevent the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from cutting $7.4 million in funding that has been frozen since 2011.
"We're happy," Astorino spokeswoman Donna Greene said. "It's exactly what we hoped they would do."
The funds were frozen in the midst of a continuing dispute over a controversial 2009 court settlement involving the county's use of HUD funds for affordable housing.
Under HUD's interpretation of the settlement, Westchester County has failed to comply with two key parts of the deal.
Specifically, HUD claims Astorino has not sought to enact legislation that would prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants who receive federal housing subsidies. Recently, a federal appellate court ordered Astorino to take action on the legislation. Astorino has pledged to comply with the order in the event the Legislature passes such legislation -- by no means a certainty in an election year.
HUD also claims the county has yet to develop a plan to fight exclusionary zoning in 31 affluent, mostly white communities. Astorino contends there is no exclusionary zoning in the communities and thus no action is required.
HUD has threatened to cut the $7.4 million on Thursday unless Astorino complies with both demands.
Monday's action -- the measure passed by a vote of 12 to 4 -- allows Astorino to ask a federal judge for a preliminary injunction to stop HUD from cutting the funding. The county then would file a lawsuit challenging HUD's rationale for cutting the money.
A HUD spokesman declined to comment.
Astorino and county lawmakers already have sent HUD a letter asking for an extension of the April 25 deadline. The letter argued that the county needs more time to pass the source-of-income legislation. It also mentioned that the attorney appointed to monitor the settlement, James Johnson, is conducting his own analysis of Westchester zoning, suggesting that Johnson's conclusions might break the impasse between Astorino and HUD.
In the letter, officials also proposed that HUD allow the state, rather than the county, to distribute the $7.4 million, which is slated to pay for road repairs, park improvements and other projects throughout the county.
Legis. Peter Harckham (D-Katonah) said he voted for the measure because he wanted to give Astorino as many tools as possible to preserve the funding for local infrastructure.
"To protect our communities, even though I don't agree with how the administration has handled the housing settlement by and large, we should take all measures we can," he said.
Astorino originally submitted a bill to lawmakers that gave him broad scope to challenge the federal government in court, Harckham said. Lawmakers dialed back that authority. The legislation approved Monday gives the Republican county executive permission only to go to court to preserve the frozen funding.
"It's not going to reopen the settlement," Harckham said.
Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers), Legis. Judy Myers (D-Rye), Legis. Bill Ryan (D-White Plains) and Legis. Alfreda Williams (D-Greenburgh) voted against the bill. Both Jenkins and Ryan are seeking the Democratic Party's nomination to challenge Astorino's re-election bid in November.
Jenkins said he voted no because he would prefer to try to meet HUD's requirements under the terms of the settlement. In the meantime, he added, HUD still might grant the county's request for more time and might allow the state to hand out the funds.
An injunction and lawsuit would only antagonize HUD, Jenkins said.
"All we're doing is trying to grab a tiger by the tail," he said. "I think it's a bad choice for Westchester County."