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Astorino touts union concessions, taxes

NEWS 12 WESTCHESTER: Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino delivers his State of the County address. (April 26, 2012)

Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino pledged to hold the line on property taxes for the third year in a row and touted progress toward getting union members to pay more for health care benefits.

In his third State of the County address, Astorino said Wednesday the county has reached an agreement with 120 Teamsters in the managerial unit on a seven-year contract that will require members to contribute 10 percent of their health care premiums in exchange for a retroactive 9.25 percent pay raise. In 2015, the share will increase to 12.5 percent. New hires will have to contribute 20 percent under the terms of the tentative contract.

Speaking at the county courthouse, the first-term Republican called the agreement a "major breakthrough."

"Since coming into office, I have been pleading with our unions to start contributing to the cost of their health care," he said. "Free health care is a terrific benefit. But in the real world, nothing is free."

The county has eight unions, including Teamsters, Civil Service Employees Association and Police Benevolent Association, and all are operating under expired contracts. Astorino said health care costs -- projected at $140 million a year -- have become a burden on taxpayers. He urged union leaders to help reduce the costs.

"Let's work together to save as many jobs as possible," he said, a thinly veiled reference to previous threats to lay off workers unless the unions agreed to contribute to health care costs in contract negotiations.

The county executive also voiced his support for the new Tappan Zee Bridge project, pledged to continue working on flood mitigation projects in the county and criticized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for holding up $7 million in funds amid a dispute over the terms of a 2009 affordable housing settlement.

"How ironic is it that HUD, which claims its mission is 'to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities,' won't release millions of dollars designated to do just that," Astorino said.

Echoing previous State of the County speeches, Astorino also talked about his pledge to contain property taxes and said he won't be increasing them in the next fiscal year. He vowed to maintain the county's triple A bond rating while promoting economic growth and called for reform of state-mandated expenses that have strained finances.

"We have no control over the bills Albany sends us, and the state has no self-control over the size of the bills it sends us," he said. "The result is a cost explosion that threatens to bankrupt us."

Astorino also mentioned the commuter tax, which some New York City leaders have talked about reinstating. "We can't allow that to happen, especially at a time when our economy is so fragile and our taxes are already way too high," he said. "I am ready to lead the fight to make sure the commuter tax never returns from the dead."

Astorino's address comes amid an escalating feud with Democrats on the county Legislature, with the two sides butting heads over issues from day care funding and after-school programs to county bus route changes.

Even the choice of venue for his address, which was moved from the Legislature's chambers to the Jury Room at the Westchester County Courthouse, was criticized by Democratic lawmakers, who said the change broke with tradition. Astorino's staff said the change of venue was made to accommodate a larger audience and nothing more.

In his speech, Astorino called on the board's Democratic majority to approve more than $80 million in capital projects awaiting approval, some of which he said have been languishing for nearly a year.

"These vital projects will put people to work and we need to make that happen now," he said. "No more delays. The time for action is now."

Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat, took issue with Astorino's estimates, calling them "inflated." He said the Legislature will be "moving forward with those projects" in coming months.

On the Teamsters contract, Jenkins praised the agreement on health care contributions but questioned the pay raises for upper management and said the county didn't address the issue of accumulated sick pay.

"Given the current economic climate, I'm not sure how that's going to play with some board members," he said.

Republican Legis. Michael Smith of Valhalla praised the county executive's speech and echoed his calls for union leaders to agree to chipping in for health care coverage.

"The union leadership has the chance to save jobs," he said. "It's time for them to step up to the plate."

Union leaders who listened to Astorino's speech Wednesday night declined to comment about the Teamster's contract.

"We're not in a position to negotiate this in public," said Bruce Donnelly, acting president of the Correction Superior Officers Association, one of the eight unions. "We'll be discussing it at the negotiating table."

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