Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino ripped into the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on Tuesday evening, charging that HUD's plans for affordable housing in Westchester would "turn the American Dream upside down."
Addressing an audience of about 250 people who come to the county courthouse in White Plains to hear a State of the County speech, Astorino continued to challenge U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who is threatening to have Astorino held in contempt of court if Astorino does not cooperate with HUD.
HUD is insisting that Astorino accept its interpretation of a 2009 settlement of an affordable-housing suit and take strong action to promote affordable housing in Westchester. Earlier Tuesday, county officials had released a letter sent by Bharara on Friday. In the letter, Bharara threatened to seek fines to be levied against Astorino personally -- a move that could wreck Astorino's family finances -- unless Astorino comes around.
Astorino saved his response for the one-hour speech.
"I say Westchester is our home, not a test tube," the county executive said. "I say Westchester residents didn't stop becoming American citizens the day the deal was signed in 2009. I say nothing gives HUD the right to turn the American Dream upside down."
WESTCHESTER 'WILL NOT BE BULLIED'
The county executive told his audience that HUD's demands continue to escalate. He said that HUD is now demanding that Westchester towns build more than 10,000 units of affordable housing, many times more than the 750 units mentioned in the 2009 settlement. Astorino calculated that the larger number would cost the taxpayers of Westchester County almost $1 billion.
"To come up with $1 billion, we would have to raise county taxes 200 percent. How is that going to work?" Astorino asked rhetorically.
When Astorino declared that Westchester "will not be bullied or threatened by HUD to do things that are not in the settlement," the audience stood and cheered.
HUD officials have threatened to cut $7.4 million in funding to the county by Thursday, and Bharara is threatening to take action the same day if Astorino continues to fight. But on Monday, the county Legislature seemed to align with Astorino, authorizing the county executive to take legal action designed to protect the federal funding at risk.
DEMS: 'PLATITUDES AND DISTORTIONS'
The combative tone of Astorino's speech could well set the tone for his re-election campaign, now getting under way in earnest. On Wednesday, Westchester County Democrats are scheduled to conduct their election convention, where they will nominate a candidate to challenge Astorino in November.
New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, Legis. Bill Ryan (D-White Plains) and Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) are seeking the nomination. All three were in the chamber, listening to Astorino's speech. They were disappointed Astorino chose to criticize HUD rather than seek reconciliation with the federal government.
"Instead of a clear path to grow our economy, create jobs and cut waste through shared services, we hear a string of platitudes and distortions," Bramson said.
Jenkins said he was dismayed that Astorino didn't mention the U.S. attorney's recent threat.
"I'm sure there was a conscious effort to ignore it tonight," Jenkins said. "We'll see what happens on Thursday."
Astorino was portraying himself as a David to the Goliath of HUD to score points with his conservative base, Ryan said.
BALANCE BETWEEN GOVERNMENT, PEOPLE
"He's exaggerating," Ryan said. "It's a self-serving story he's told. He's avoiding topics that are very damaging with respect to his conduct in this whole matter."
In his speech, Astorino laid out a case against tax increases to finance big government, repeating one of the themes that got him elected four years ago. He reminded his audience that property taxes in the county are among the highest in the nation, yet still fail to fully cover the skyrocketing cost of running the county government.
"For our social contract to survive, we need to strike the right balance between what the government takes and what the people can afford to give, and we work on that balance every day," he said.
Astorino trumpeted his success in assembling a bipartisan coalition to adopt the county's current $1.7 billion budget. That maneuver undermined Jenkins and since has allowed Astorino to portray himself as a moderate.
"Memo to Washington: Bipartisan government can work and we've shown how to do it," Astorino said.
BLAMING ALBANY FOR BUDGET WOES
Returning to a theme he frequently sounds when the subject is government spending, he blamed Albany for imposing programs it doesn't pay for.
"Just nine unfunded mandates from Albany will cost county government $464 million this year," Astorino said. "That means 85 cents out of every dollar of our county tax levy -- your money -- is consumed uncontrollably by Albany. The system is horribly broken."
Astorino took full credit for cutting county taxes by 2 percent in the past three years, contrasting that record with increases totaling 17 percent in the five years before he assumed office. He defended cuts to social services that helped him deliver balanced budgets and his move to require that parents pay a larger share of the cost of child care at county-subsidized day care centers.
"It is true that in a bipartisan compromise we asked parents receiving taxpayer-subsidized day care to pay a little more," he said. "But what you don't always hear is that we were able to increase the number of slots by 18 percent, or almost 600, so that many more low-income families can now get help."
Astorino promised that a plan to turn the management of Rye Playland over to a nonprofit corporation would be cost-effective. By the middle of next month, the nonprofit, Sustainable Playland, is due to submit a plan that includes spending $35 million in major alterations.
The Board of Legislators needs to approve the plan, and it's not clear whether Astorino can assemble a bipartisan coalition to win approval. Jenkins has threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the plan. On Tuesday night, Astorino appealed for support.
"We will make Westchester County -- the place we love today -- even better tomorrow," he said.