WHITE PLAINS – Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino proposed a $1.8 billion budget for 2018 on Monday that preserves essential services, maintains the safety net for the county’s neediest residents and for the eighth straight year does not raise the county tax levy.
“This is a budget that protects taxpayers, preserves essential services and promotes economic growth,” said Astorino. “It maintains the focus of all of our other budgets, which is to run county government smartly and efficiently while keeping Westchester affordable.”
The 2018 budget plan holds expenses flat, with spending increasing by less than 1 percent to $1.838 billion compared to $1.825 billion in 2017.
Once again, Astorino has kept the tax levy flat at $548 million, marking the eighth budget where he has lowered or not increased taxes. The savings to taxpayers has been substantial. If the county had raised the tax levy just 2 percent, the level allowable under the state’s tax cap, the cumulative cost to Westchester taxpayers since Astorino took office would be $522 million or $1,700 for the median homeowner.
“I made a promise to protect taxpayers, and I have kept it,” said Astorino. “In doing so, much needed money has stayed in the pockets of individuals, families and, in particular, seniors across Westchester.”
Westchester’s tax levy went up 60 percent in the eight years prior to Astorino becoming County Executive in 2010.
Maintains Essential Services
The budget maintains Astorino’s commitment to preserving essential services.
Spending for the Department of Social Services (DSS), which administers the county’s safety net programs, is proposed to increase by $8.5 million to $598 million.
Funding for day care is also increasing; up $2 million to $37 million. This means parent contributions will remain at the current level of 27 percent, which is lower than New York City and many other counties around the state. The number of low income day care slots will increase to 2,766 from 2,758 projected in 2017, and the number of slots in the Title XX program, which is for families whose incomes exceed state and federal guidelines, will hold steady at 255.
Funding to non-profits and libraries will be held steady at current levels. Transportation is also being protected. All of the Bee-Line Bus System’s current routes will remain intact as a result of more than $26 million in subsidies from the county budget.
Fees for golf at county parks are set to increase $1 on weekdays and $2 on weekends.
Announced in August, tuition for the nearly 13,000 students at Westchester Community College will not increase for the fifth consecutive year thanks in part to the county’s $30 million sponsor contribution, which is a $65,000 increase over the previous school year.
Average Compensation for a County Worker Is More Than $134,000
With headcount essentially flat at 4,200, the biggest single expense in the budget is employee compensation, which comes to $635 million or about 35 percent of county spending. The average salary of a county worker is $80,000, compared to about $70,000 for private sector workers. Total compensation for county workers jumps to $140,000, when another 75 percent is added to pay for health care, pensions and other fringe benefits.
Since coming into office, Astorino has worked to control the cost of fringe benefits by negotiating contracts that require employees to pay a portion of their health insurance. Seven of the county’s eight unions currently contribute to their health care, saving taxpayers about $5 million a year. The county’s largest union, the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), is the one hold out.
Strong Financial Position
The proposed 2018 budget reflects the county’s strong financial position.
No county in New York has a higher credit rating from the three major credit agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch – than Westchester, which means the county gets the most favorable interest rates on its borrowings. Earlier this year, the State Comptroller’s Office commended the county for its effective management of its sewer districts.
Borrowing is expected to be down. The budget anticipates no need to borrow to pay for tax certioraris, which are bills that result when taxpayers have their property assessments lowered. In addition, the county’s reliance on the state’s pension amortization program has also been greatly reduced. From a high of $42 million in 2013-14, the county expects to amortize just $4 million for the state’s 2018-19 fiscal year.
An improving economy will help the revenue side of the budget. For 2018, the county projects sales tax revenues at $545 million, up slightly from 2017.
But unfunded mandates from the state and federal government remain the county’s biggest financial hurdle. Requirements from Washington and Albany will consume 75 cents of every dollar in the 2018 budget. The mandates cover a variety of health and social services programs, the largest being the county’s contribution to Medicaid at $210 million. New York is the only state that pushes large-scale Medicaid costs to counties.
Mandates from Washington and Albany will consume $1.4 billion of the 2018 budget. State and federal reimbursements will come to $421 million, leaving county taxpayers a bill for $958 million and only $459 million in the budget for discretionary spending for its own expenses, such as police, parks, roads, libraries, the arts and non-profits.
Long-Term Revenue Stream
Astorino’s visionary plan for the future of Westchester County Airport holds the prospect of adding $30 million in revenue to the 2018 budget. Last week, Astorino announced he has selected Macquarie Infrastructure Corporation to operate Westchester Airport as part of a $1.1 billion public-private partnership dedicated to improving this vital county asset without expanding its footprint.
Macquarie was the unanimous choice of a bi-partisan task force made up of members of the Astorino administration and the Board of Legislators to manage, operate, maintain and improve the airport in accordance with an FAA program that would allow the county for the first time to use revenues generated at the airport to help pay for police, parks, roads, day care and other services.
Macquarie’s winning proposal – selected over two other companies – will net the county $1.145 billion over the course of a 40-year lease: a $595 million financial offer accompanied by $550 in capital funds to maintain and improve the airport’s infrastructure. The lease is “as-is/no expansion,” which means the airport’s existing terminal footprint will not expand; there can be no expansion of runways; the number of gates remains at six; and the cap of 240 passengers per half hour stays in place.
Under the terms of the lease, the county will receive just over $300 million upfront, which includes lease payments, money transferred to the general fund from county money locked at the airport and various reimbursements. In accordance with governmental accounting standards, the county will be able to use $30 million the first year. In future years, the county will receive $6.5 million annually from the lease. In addition, the county will also be reimbursed $10 million for police costs at the airport, and those reimbursements will increase 2.5% a year over the term of the lease and total $674 million.
Approval of the lease requires 12 votes from the Board of Legislators.
The budget was sent to the Board of Legislators today for their review and approval. The budget will be available online after 6 p.m. today.