Analyze, review and take action on the Westchester County Budget as a fundamental tool for implementing County Government policy. Monitor and take action on the operation of the Westchester County Government with particular attention to Election Process Reform and the issues listed below. Continue to monitor campaign finance reform, redistricting, environment and housing issues.
After the meeting League members convened to determine the League's commentary on the budget. The League statement will be presented at an open session of the Westchester Board of Legislators on December 5th.
You can read the statement here
County Property Tax Increase Essential for Balanced Budget
Making its annual critique of the proposed County Budget, the League of Women Voters of Westchester, pointing out that staffing of County departments has been cut to the bone following six years without any increase in County property taxes, recommends an increase now rather than reliance on the sort of "one-time revenue infusions" that have been used in the past.
The proposed 2017 budget is not balanced, the League said. The group criticized the Administration's inclusion in its proposed budget of income from a thus-far unapproved contract with a private firm to operate the County airport. The LWV noted that the complex airport contract had reached the Board of Legislators for its approval only on the same day that the 2017 County budget was submitted.
The County property tax is roughly 20 percent of a property owner's tax burden. An increase "well under the two percent tax cap," said the League, "could provide monies that would close the budget imbalance and allow many aspects of the proposed 2017 County budget to remain in place."
The entire League of Women Voters statement sent to the County Executive and to the Board of Legislators and to be read at the Legislature's December 7 public hearing, is as follows:
"The League of Women Voters of Westchester (LWVW) thanks the Board of Legislators for this opportunity to express our views on the proposed 2017 County Budget. The adopted changes in the Charter that mandated an October release of the Capital Projects budget and a November 10 release of the Operations Budget have been extremely helpful. We thank Budget Director Larry Soule for having met with us both informally and then at a public meeting the League held at the Scarsdale Public Library on November 17th, when he provided needed information and insights.
"Of paramount concern to us is the fact that the budget as submitted is not balanced. It relies on revenues from a proposed contract for management of the County airport that may or may not be approved. The League has studied and reached consensus on the County budget for many years; never before have we had to study and reach consensus on an unbalanced budget.
"In January 2016 the County Executive announced that for the seventh year in a row a property tax increase would not be an option for the 2017 budget. However, new revenues are essential. Not only have previous budgets resulted in expenses and staffing for most county departments being cut to the bone, but income from sales tax revenues for several years has not met goals set in adopted budgets. The sales tax gap in the 2015 budget was filled by a one-time revenue infusion from the sale of the Austin Avenue property, yet the 2016 budget again is in deficit, in part because of lagging sales tax receipts. Hence, we presume, the public/private partnership announced to both the public and to the Board of Legislators on the same day as the release of the proposed 2017 County Budget.
"The League of Women Voters repeats the recommendation we made in December 2015. Raise the property tax. The County could remain well under the two percent cap and still provide extra monies that would close the budget imbalance and allow many aspects of the proposed budget to remain in place, including keeping flat the funding of non-profit agencies, so many of which complement the work of County departments and contribute to Westchester's quality of life.
"We worry about managing the budget by not filling vacancies, as has been done to a certain extent in the Department of Public Safety. This department increasingly has been asked to handle municipal police duties and has been forced to shift personnel from one place to another to meet emergency situations. The Department should be fully staffed.
"One department that has had an increase in staff is the Board of Elections. That is appropriate. This Board now is responsible for conducting municipal elections and for the provision and maintenance of voting machines for all elections, including those for school boards and budgets. There has been an increase in the number of elections held as well, as more primaries have been conducted.
"We note that all County personnel now are working out of contract. However, the proposed budget contains not even one expense line that might cover raises and benefits resulting from upcoming contract negotiations. If negotiated raises are covered by drawing down the fund balance, this might affect the County's credit rating.
"One item proposed in the capital projects budget is an outdoor ice rink at the Kensico Dam. We believe County resources, both financial and human capital, are better directed toward improvement and maintenance of the County's existing infrastructure, with attention specifically to roads, bridges, and flood mitigation.
"We are pleased to see in the budget a decrease in tax certiori expenses. We note that these could be reduced even further if more municipalities would conduct property revaluations and then keep them up to date. Although revaluation is a local matter, the county could help facilitate both this and flood mitigation projects that cross municipal lines.
·The budget is not balanced.
·We propose increasing property tax to balance the budget."
Marylou Green, President
Betsy Shaw Weiner, Co-Chair, County Budget Committee
The League pointed out that county taxes were a relatively small portion of the tax burden on Westchester resident. An increase to the 2% cap currently permitted by the State would impact each household very little while helping the County make up the deficits of the past, avoid jeopardizing its AAA credit rating and preserve the quality of life.
For the entire statement, click here LWVW 2016 County Budget Statement
Read more in the Journal News: http://www.lohud.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/07/11/westchester-election-bosses-listen/29951689/
Pictured from left: Lola Geiger, Pres. LWVHarrison, Richard Nightingale, Pres&Ceo, Westhab,Inc, and Karen Schatzel, Housing Chair, LWVW.
The Leagues of Harrison and Westchester heard Richard Nightingale, President & CEO of Westhab, Inc discuss "Housing for All" on June 17th, 2015. Westhab is the leading not-for-profit provider of housing and social services for homeless and low-income families in Westchester. To learn more about them go to http://www.westhab.org.
The County has also starved staffing, particularly in the Planning Department and the Department of Public Works, making it difficult for those departments to deal with projects like infrastructure improvements that contribute to the health and safety of people who live and work in Westchester.
We deplore this approach to budgeting. It is putting the County's on-going expenses on a credit card. We need a more far-sighted approach from those who lead the County government so that it can meet all its responsibilities to future taxpayers.
Comments by the League of Women Voters of Westchester, Inc. To the Westchester County Board of Legislators About the Proposed 2015 Westchester County Budget
The League of Women Voters of Westchester thanks the Board of Legislators (BOL) for the opportunity to comment on the proposed 2015 budget.
We also thank Budget Director Larry Soule and Deputy Budget Director Francesca Bossey, who reviewed the budget with our membership and members of the public on November 19, 2014. This statement is based on positions reached by our members following their presentation and our own committee's examination of the budget documents.
Our County's policy of no tax increases over the past four years and in 2015 is resulting in financial engineering, ballooning debt, and capital project delays. If tax increases are not a possibility, then we recommend that the County explore other ways to increase revenue.
An example of financial engineering is borrowing to finance what many financial experts would view as current expenses. Instead of a "pay as you go" approach, this budget bonds/borrows for tax certiorari expenses, pension expenses, and some infrastructure maintenance. In removing such items from the Operating Budget that would be funded by the property tax levy, it simply transfers this year's expenses to future taxpayers. We think this is bad practice.
The growth of the Capital Projects budget is of great concern. Too many projects languish in limbo without progress being made. Repair of crumbling infrastructure is postponed, in some cases actually risking the health and safety of those who live and work in Westchester. We concur with the recommendations made this year by the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee for improvements in the Capital Budget process. We particularly would like to see a sunset provision on projects so that they are either dropped or their costs updated.
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The League applauds the accessibility of budget information through websites maintained both by the administration and the BOL, as well as through the public testimony of department commissioners before the Budget and Appropriations Committee. The League urges the BOL to make its final version of the budget available for public review prior to voting, highlighting both its additions and deletions.
We are grateful to Budget Director Larry Soule and Deputy Budget Director Francesca Bossey, who met with our membership and members of the public on December 2, 2013. Their presentation was detailed, and they responded to questions we posed beforehand and to those from meeting attendees. This statement is based on positions reached by our members following that presentation.
The proposed 2014 budget is based on three premises: no tax increase for the fourth year in a row; preservation of the County's triple A credit rating; and maintenance of essential County services. However, these three goals have not been reached. Moody's, one of the three credit rating agencies, has downgraded the County's rating to AA-1. One of the reasons it gave for doing so is an item against which we cautioned in our statement on the 2013 budget, namely the practice of borrowing to pay for pension costs. Borrowing to pay for such operating expenses will snowball into the future and therefore is unsustainable. Moody's cited two other concerns that we share to a lesser degree: the County's limited liquidity and its depleted reserve funds. Efforts must be made to correct all these concerns. Should they continue, we perhaps face further downgrading that will affect the rates we can command on bonding for necessary capital projects.
The goal of preservation of the County's essential services also comes into question in this budget. We note that no personnel increases in the departments have been allowed. In fact, there are deletions in two essential areas, the positions of Environmental Project Director and Director of the Water Agency. There have been no additions made to the staff of the County's Department of Planning, which received major cuts in the 2013 budget. The Planning Department not only leads in carrying out the County's responsibilities under the Housing Settlement ordered by the Federal Court, but also has taken on such additional tasks as providing staff for the newly created Stormwater Advisory Board. At the same time, six new positions are provided for in the County Executive's office, with no indication about their responsibilities. We find this highly questionable.
At the end of the budget a line called "Community Based Initiatives" has been described as a fund that can be used to provide grant monies for local programs. In view of the flat program maintenance across the budget, despite increasing sales tax, mortgage tax and other revenues in this improving economy, we find this item inappropriate.
A particular concern of the League of Women Voters always is the smooth operation of voting in every election, from school district through municipalities through Federal offices; it rests primarily with the County's Board of Elections. For this reason we support its request for six new positions, and continue to hope the Board will move to split the shifts of most election inspectors as now permitted by state law. However, we wonder at its request for 1,420 new voting machines, particularly those ballot marking devices (BMDs) for the disabled that are so little used at this time. We hope the BOL will look more closely into this request before approving it.
We reinterate our plea that submission of the County Budget be made earlier, in order to
allow for more time for both the BOL and the public to review it. In this regard, we are
pleased to support several recommendations made by the Charter Revision Commission, as
1. Change the County's fiscal year so that it starts on July 1 and ends on June 30 (instead of using a calendar year).
2. Establish a minimum 75-day period for budget review by the BOL and the public, and adoption by the BOL.
3. Establish a minimum period for consideration of budget additions and deletions prior to a final vote.
4. Provide the BOL with estimates of revenues and expenditures along with supporting data that each department submits to the Budget Director.
5. Submit quarterly financial reports from the Budget Director to the BOL and the public.
6. Give public notice of borrowing to cover pension costs and/or other operating expenses.
Finally, although the goal of holding the line on tax increases is commendable, the League thinks it should not be dogma. While we are not endorsing it for 2014 without6 a harder look at items we have flagged, we recognize that a small tax increase, shared by all, may at some point be necessary to maintain county services and the triple A credit rating of which the County has previously been justly proud.
My name is Beverley Sved. I am here to represent the League of Women Voters of Westchester.
I and several of my fellow League members have attended many of your meetings. We have been very impressed with how your Commission organized itself; how the Chair presided over meetings that were focused and, at the same time, let all voices be heard; and most importantly we found that this important work was addressed in a non-partisan manner.
Based on the League's past study, we would like to comment on three of the Commission's recommendations:
Improve the budget process
Consolidate assessment functions to the County level
Appoint, rather than elect, the County Clerk
Budget Process The LWVW has, for many years, examined the proposed County Budget. Each year we have recommended an earlier release of the budget to provide for a more orderly review by the Board of Legislators and by the public. The current process results in a compressed month to six weeks of effort during a time when secular and religious holidays shorten the actual time available. The Charter Revision Commission proposes a series of solutions that we support.
1. Change the County's fiscal year so that it begins on July 1 and ends on June 30. This would avoid a crunch at the end of the calendar year and would be more in line with New York State's fiscal year, thus allowing for more accurate estimates of State aid to be incorporated into the county budget.
2. Establish a minimum 75-day period for budget review by the Board of Legislators, the public, and adoption by the BOL.
3. Establish a minimum period for consideration of budget additions and deletions prior to a final vote.
4. Provide the Board of Legislators estimates of revenues and expenditures along with supporting data that each department submits to the Budget Director.
Two additional recommendations would increase public understanding of the budget and of its future consequences; the LWVW supports them.
1. Submission to the Board of Legislators of quarterly financial reports and publication of these reports for public consumption. Such reports currently are made so that the BOL can exercise its oversight responsibilities; the public should have equal access.
2. Public notice of borrowing to cover pension costs. This notice should be made in the County Executive's budget message and should be detailed as to amount and duration.
County Reassessment Board In a November 2009 report we stated that centralizing assessment would increase government efficiency and might lower costs. We closely followed the work of the Westchester Collaborative Assessment Commission, which promoted uniform data collecting methods and generally took a countywide approach to the issue. In 2012, we conducted a survey of Westchester municipalities to determine where they are on reassessment. And on March 20, 2013, we sponsored a panel discussion on reassessment at which the panelists generally agreed to a countywide approach. On the basis of all of this, the LWVW supports the Charter Revision Commission's recommendation that a County Reassessment Board be formed.
Appointment of the County Clerk We understand that some posts require professional qualifications. In line with this, the League of Women Voters of New York State in its consolidation guidelines of November 2009 called for making the position of County Clerk appointive rather than elective. We also note that at a recent LWVW candidates meeting, both aspirants to the position supported such a move. Accordingly, the League of Women Voters of Westchester supports this recommendation.
Thank you for your hard work to make our County government more efficient and effective to the betterment of all Westchester County residents.
Although the League does not have a consensus position on the current proposals to restructure or eliminate the BAC, the League has, in its past annual letters to the Board of Legislators and Administration regarding the County Budget, expressed continuing concern about the BAC's lack of transparency in its deliberations and decision-making. In addition, members of the League's Executive Committee have attended all of the recent meetings of the Legislation Committee, and have closely followed the statements provided to this Committee by those involved in the process leading up to the BAC's abbreviated meetings of approval. Consequently, the following remarks are the result of our long-time, closely-watched observations of both the BAC and of the current examination of its operations by the Board of Legislators and the County Executive's office.
It would appear that the BAC + or some other "mechanism" + is needed to provide a more timely and expeditious process than that which can be provided through normal budgetary proceedings under the Board of Legislators' current part-time schedule. Nevertheless, the formal, established process described to this Committee by participants in that preliminary process does not provide public access to the meetings prior to the BAC's final votes on acquisitions and contracts, preventing the public and/or media from examining those proposed acquisitions and contracts before a vote is taken.
While also recognizing the need for confidentiality in matters of personnel contracts, the League questions why preliminary meetings leading to the BAC's votes could not be opened to the public and provide for "Executive Sessions" on such matters regarding personnel contracts, allowing for transparency in this important area of budget and management.
§100 of the Open Meetings Law provides that: "the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy." Although the final decisions on contracts are listed in the BAC's minutes, the deliberations conducted by the BAC are not open to the public, leading a reasonable person to conclude that the BAC is not in compliance with the Open Meetings Law.
It is the League's position that if true transparency is desired at all levels of government, every effort should be made to open the proceedings of the Board of Acquisition and Contract to examination by the public, whether the public affords itself of that opportunity or not. Again, on behalf of the Executive Committee of the League of Women Voters of Westchester, I thank you for the opportunity to speak to this issue.