MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino answered residents' questions at a town hall style meeting at the Mamaroneck Town Center Tuesday night after speaking about taxes, pensions, economic development, affordable housing, and other current topics that are top-of-mind to the community.
Astorino said that above all, the priorities for Westchester County are "The Three Ps," which are protecting the taxpayer, preserving essential services and promoting economic growth.
"We have the misfortune of having the highest taxes of any county in America and we needed to start living within our means and slowing things down because too many people were leaving for not being able to pay their tax bills," Astorino said.
He pointed out that the county worked to curb spending over the past few years since he has been in office, with the budget peaking in 2010 at $1.81 billion, which was a 23 percent increase since 2005, and now being back at $1.72 billion in 2013.
"If you spend a lot, you have to tax a lot, and we have put the brakes on spending in a way that I think is real," he said. "We've done that by having a smaller workforce and really restructuring things."
With bipartisan compromise, he said it was possible to not increase the tax levy and also protect the county's AAA credit ratings.
Still, since expenses remain high and revenues are flat with little to no state or federal aid, the county needs to be cautious, he said. Astorino added that pensions are soaring out of control -- at $91 million in 2013 -- and with other costs such as Medicaid, child welfare, youth detention and public assistance, 85 percent of the county tax levy goes to straight to the state.
In touching on services that might be used more by lower-income communities, Astorino said that what's essential to someone might not be essential to somebody else, but "essential" is about what the greater good is for all.
"We have a population in Westchester that needs help, and we need to serve them," he said. "I take this very seriously and this is absolutely the role of government to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. We have to have big hearts and help people."
The county has added to social services, with spending up 3 percent over the past three years as other areas had cuts in expenditures.
The controversy over affordable housing persists, he said. Astorino said the county is pushing back on the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, which is demanding that the county go beyond the terms of the affordable housing settlement, based on the allegation that Westchester's zoning laws are currently "exlusionary".
Astorino stressed that economic development and investment is imperative for growth in Westchester. "We are out there making sure that we're creating an environment where big businesses and small can work with us and the state to get the incentives what they need."
There have been 4,800 jobs retained, 4,600 new jobs, and $500 million in new investments. Retaining a large corporation like PepsiCo and encouraging start-ups and non-profits have been a big part of growth.
Making changes at Playland, which Astorino called a "very difficult piece of property," also came up as a big issue. Attendance, and hence revenue, is down and the infrastructure is costly.
"We do own it -- it's parkland -- but we need to fix it," he said. "We're losing about $4 million to $5 million a year on it."
The change will be to transform the space into parkland that can be used more sustainably and enjoyably by the community year-round. An amusement area with rides will remain, but the beaches will be cleaned up, there will be a great lawn where concerts can take place, a field zone that can be used for games and sporting events, and a portable ice rink.
Astorino answered questions on all of these topics and others in an open dialog with residents.
Check back at The Daily Voice for future "Ask Astorino" dates around Westchester.