Westchester County Executive George Latimer delivered a candid speech to a packed room of over 200 people at The Business Council of Westchester’s KeyBank Speaker Series on Wednesday, covering everything from his $1.94 billion budget proposal to talks about plans at the airport, Playland and the North 60.
Latimer is in the midst of his first executive budget proposal, which calls for a 2 percent property tax levy increase for 2019. Facing a budget gap of $71 million, resulting from a $32 million deficit from last year and a $39 million shortfall this year, Latimer said his budget aims to restore fiscal order.
Among other things, he has proposed selling county parking lots located on parkland at the County Center in White Plains to help raise an estimated $22 million.
“Is this a really good thing to do? No,” he said. “And when I read day after day after day what a bad idea it is, OK, give me a better idea.”
John Ravitz, executive vice president of the BCW, says he has a better idea – approve a deal to lease Westchester County Airport under a public private partnership.
“Not only would this add much-needed revenue for the county, but it also would benefit the economic climate of Westchester because over and over again, we hear that the airport is a key component in the attraction and retention of businesses in the county,” he said. “Enhance, not expand – that is our motto. It’s smart for business travelers and the general traveling public who enjoy the convenience of flying out close to home.”
Latimer commended the BCW for spearheading the creation of The Coalition for Westchester Airport, which has brought together leading businesses and other segments of the community to support responsible enhancements to the airport.
The BCW’s advocacy on behalf of the airport is in keeping with its mission as the county’s largest and most prestigious business membership organization representing more than 1,000 members, including multinational corporations, hospitals, universities, biotech pioneers, not-for-profits, entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes. As the most influential economic development and advocacy organization in Westchester, The Business Council of Westchester’s members enjoy unparalleled access to today’s top thought leaders, diverse business development opportunities and lawmakers at all levels of government.
A new Master Plan is underway at the airport, and all perspectives are being looked at critically and most importantly, openly, cooperatively and inclusively, Latimer said, adding: “Not at the gun point of a budget.”
On Playland, Latimer said he felt the deal with Standard Amusements was not the best deal for the taxpayers of Westchester County. He said he has a meeting with the company leadership today, Nov. 30.
“I am a traditionalist,” he said. “I grew up in this county. I went to Playland as a kid long before I moved across the street from it. And I want to see the county have a role. If we are going to have a relationship going forward, I think it can be recast in a more positive light.”
Turning to the North 60, a 60-acre parcel of county-owned land adjacent to the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, Latimer said plans by developer John Fareri to lease the property and create a biotech hub seemed like an “intelligent effort.” The county is now conducting a full economic analysis to present to the Board of Legislators for consideration in reviewing the deal.
“In terms of North 60, that seems to me, layman, to be an intelligent effort to try to help create a biotech presence. It’s not easy to do,” he said.
The speech came just a day after Westchester County lost its AAA grade from S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings. Both cut its grade one level to AA+, citing the county’s drawing down of its cash reserves to cover retroactive raises given to county employees. The costs of a new contract, the first in seven years, with the county’s largest union – the Civil Service Employees Association – provided a roughly $28 million hit to next year’s budget.
Going forward, Latimer said he was going to spend a lot of time making the case for relief from Albany.
“I probably will spend as much time in Albany over the next three months as I did as an Assemblyman or a Senator,” he said. “I’m going to say, friends, if you want us at the local level to manage our governments, you have to give us greater revenue flexibility… There are five or six different revenue streams. But we have to have those revenue streams. We need to have non-property-tax -revenue streams if you want us to keep the property taxes low and run the government with the mandates that you’ve given us. And no other prior County Executive ever served in that state legislature – I have.”