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Statement from Board of Legislators Chairman Mike Kaplowitz: Westchester needs 'low and slow' approach to taxes and budget planning

I am honored to have served as the 13th chairperson of the Westchester County Board of Legislators. Over four years as chairman, I have engaged with Democrats, Republicans and a registered Conservative in a unique experience of bipartisanship.  We have discussed, argued, agreed and disagreed over the issues of the day.  Most legislators adopted the same goal of finding common ground through consensus and compromise to solve the multitude of problems we faced.


But challenges remain, particularly in the area of budget and finance. We find ourselves ending the 2017 fiscal year with a $15 million deficit, and a proposed 2018 budget with a best-case scenario deficit of $30 million. Recognizing this, Standard & Poor’s just placed Westchester County on a credit watch for a potential downgrade.


In my 20 years as a county legislator, I have had the pleasure of serving with two very different county executives.  Both are family men who served in good faith, but both were guilty of the same hubris: believing they could defy the laws of budgetary gravity.  Andrew Spano said that his administration could cut county taxes by 15 percent. Robert Astorino promised that despite inflation, rising costs and financial difficulties, he would hold the line on the county tax levy forever at a zero increase.


Both tried and both failed. The Spano administration reduced taxes by 7.5 percent the first three years, but taxes subsequently went up 65 percent, including two years of double-digit increases.  Astorino's auto pilot approach of not raising the tax levy ran into a mountain of flat sales-tax revenues and necessitated a series of one-shot budgetary gimmicks, higher borrowing, and deferred costs and infrastructure investment.  More crucially, the bill for potentially paying back wages to the county’s 4,000 employees, some of whom have been without a contract since 2011, has risen to tens of millions of dollars.


So as I step down as chairman of the board, what budgetary lessons have I learned?


First, no one wants to pay more property taxes, particularly on the cusp of federal action that could bring financial uncertainly and higher costs to many in New York.


Second, you get what you pay for.  Reasonable taxes are the price we all pay for an excellent district attorney and county clerk, health department, county jail, county police, critical sewage and water services, bridge and road infrastructure, social services and a strong safety net for any of us who might fall off the tightrope of life. We also get a clean environment, an enjoyable park system and support for our critical non-profits that help deliver essential human services at a fraction of county costs.


Third, wild gyrations in county taxes that dramatically fall one year, and dizzyingly increase the next year, is wrong.  Equally wrong is the artificial stance of never raising property taxes.


Instead, policymakers should employ a “low and slow” approach.  Adopt a tax cap methodology that allows for minimal 1 or 2 percent increases.  No higher and no lower.  This way individuals and businesses know what to expect.  County government can then plan for current needs and develop long-term strategies.  And citizens will have confidence that their county government is acting in a fiscally efficient way, earning the highest credit rating and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in borrowing costs.


This approach is what the current Board of Legislators has wisely adopted through a nominal tax increase for the 2018 Budget. And by the way, a 1 percent increase on county taxes, which make up approximately 18 percent of a homeowner's tax bill, would cost the average homeowner $17.62 per year.  The cost of one fully loaded pizza.


We all welcome the new county executive, George Latimer, who has a demonstrated commitment to public service and significant governmental experience.  I am hopeful his administration adopts a “low and slow” tax policy that allows us to reset our budgetary expectations while working through significant current deficits. I am confident that his administration will continue to act in a bipartisan fashion to balance the wishes and desires of all Westchester residents.

 

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