WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. – With Election Day rapidly approaching, political hopefuls throughout Westchester County continue to debate how to best handle the crippling unfunded mandates that have become a drain on county municipalities.
Eighty-five cents of every tax dollar that residents pay to the county is immediately sent to the state to pay for programs that include public assistance, child welfare and Medicaid.
In the 2013 county budget, $225 million is being paid to the state for Medicaid, $42 million for pre-school special education programs, and $3 million for youth detention. Pensions will account for $91 million in 2013, up from $3.3 million in 2001, $35 million in 2008 and $81 million last year.
Nine unfunded mandates from the state government will cost the county government $464 million, while the county will receive just $249 million in state aid.
In an effort to curb the exponentially growing mandates, County Executive Rob Astorino said that five of eight unions he has negotiated with will have employees paying up to 15 percent of their healthcare. Recent hires will also have to pay 20 percent past retirement. He added that healthcare and pensions are the biggest drains on the county budget.
“I held a line in the sand that I was not going to sign contracts with our unions until they started paying for healthcare like everyone else. The fact that taxpayers were paying 100 percent of county employee healthcare for the rest of their life is unfair,” he said. “This is a short and long-term fix. Our numbers for pensions is crazy. This goes directly from our budget to Albany, and we can do less and less of what we want each year on a local level.”
County Legislator Peter Harckham (D-Katonah) said that in an effort to control unfunded mandates, the county is looking into consolidating local essential services with the county. In Ossining, the county police merged with local police to cut costs across the board. Mount Kisco is currently discussing a similar arrangement with the county.
“In Ossining, we didn’t cost the people of Westchester any money. We got rid of a layer of administration and still kept local officials on the street,” he said. “Consolidation is something we look at, and we also look at what investments can be made to keep families working and contributing. It’s not about saving a dollar today and paying five dollars down the road.”
New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, the democratic candidate for county executive, agreed that consolidation is one of the best ways to counter unfunded mandates.
“As a municipal official, I’ve seen how unfunded mandates tie our cities’ and school districts’ hands. We need to do a better job of working to reduce those burdens and finding ways to cooperate to save taxpayer money,” he said. “We need to make shared services a serious priority in Westchester. It’s the best way to cut the overall cost of government and provide real leadership for taxpayers.”
Unfunded mandates have become a point of contention not just for politicians, but also for residents who continue to see a rising tax bill with services being cut. At a Mount Vernon City Council meeting, resident Glen Jenkins said he was “fed up” with living in the most taxed county in the country.
“We keep paying, and we keep not seeing anything from it. Our taxes go up, our quality of living goes down,” he said. “Explain to me why I’ll be paying for these peoples’ health insurance for the rest of both of our lives?”