SOMERS, N.Y. - Hundreds of Westchester residents packed into the Somers High School auditorium on Wednesday night to address the County Board of Legislators (BOL) with concerns about the 2012 county budget. The county’s Northern Region 2012 Budget Public Hearing was the second in a series of three, following the Southern District Hearing on November 22 in New Rochelle.
The proposed $1.689 billion budget had been presented by County Executive Robert Astorino on November 15. Although the budget would not increase the county property tax levy, it would cut spending by $100 million and reduce the county’s workforce by 7.5%.
One of the greatest concerns was the loss of funds for subsidized childcare in the county. Chief Executive of the Ossining Children’s Center Howard Milbert spoke for more than 100 in the room when he said that the proposed rate increase of parent share, from 15% to 35%, is of “a magnitude that is untenable. Subsidized childcare will cease to be affordable to even the poorest families.”
He asked that the legislature keep funding for the Westchester Childcare Scholarship, and he reminded the BOL that it was they who, through the Westchester Childcare Scholarship, made Westchester the statewide model for affordable high quality childcare.
Proposed budget cuts to the arts were also a major issue. Katonah Museum of Art Trustee Rochelle Rosenberg spoke of the positive impact the arts industry has on the local economy. The museum has over 40,000 visitors a year, she said. It gives Westchester a national presence and makes it culturally vibrant, she added.
The museum relies on funding received from the county through ArtsWestchester, the largest private not-for-profit arts council in the state. Over the last three years it has received a 30% cut in county funding.
Scores of residents were worried about budget cuts to various Westchester Parks. People who spoke on behalf of the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) included George Morrison of Briarcliff Manor. He said that funding to the CCE had been cut in last year’s budget but was restored by overriding the county executive’s veto. Said Morrison, “We must appeal yet again for the same reasons” we had for last year.
Executive Director Barbara Sacks added that the CCE nutritional program provided services that would otherwise have to be funded by the county.
Westchester's Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) President Karen Pecora addressed the employee layoffs, stating that the decrease in jobs would indirectly lead to an increase in other costs. She noted that the Department of Health was able to forestall a hepatitis epidemic recently by educating the public in advance.
“We are not just lines in a budget, we are real people, we are real families, we pay real taxes and we contribute to the real economy in Westchester County. We agree with the county executive that the cost of living in Westchester is high and should not be increased. But how is eliminating 210 people going to help? The number of homes going into foreclosure would increase, the number of people not able to pay their taxes would increase. People work, layoffs don’t.”
Legislator Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers) said that although there is “no way you can answer every one of the speakers, we will come up with a better budget than the county executive. We have until Monday to add programs and then we need to defend what was added.”
Legislator Peter Harckham(D-Katonah) said “these are tough choices, we are looking at lines we can shift. We’ll be meeting with auditors on Tuesday but in this tough economy we won’t find a lot.”
Both legislators said that they are committed to a zero percent tax increase.
The third and final public hearing will be held on December 6 at the County Board of Legislatures Chambers, 8th floor of the Michaelian Office Building, White Plains.