Westchester County Executive George Latimer presented his proposed 2023 operating budget on Nov. 10. The budget, which totals over $2.3 billion, includes a county property tax cut for the fourth year in a row.
The budget is now subject to review by the County Board of Legislators, which began a series of committee meetings Monday, Nov. 14. Representatives of all county departments and offices will make presentations to and take questions from the Budget & Appropriations Committee. The Board of Legislators is also hosting three public hearings on the budget.
Proposed budget expenditures total $2,367,724,638, with revenues equaling that amount. The county property tax levy would decrease by $6 million, and its share of the revenue total would be reduced from 24.7% to 22.9%. In 2021, property taxes were 27.19% of revenue.
The property tax reduction is offset by an anticipated increase in sales tax revenue of nearly $77 million, from $832,964,000 to $909,850,000, and by a $54 million increase in federal and state aid, nearly $8 million in additional departmental income, and some $15 million in other revenues.
In announcing the proposed budget, Latimer said he had been all around the county and heard from families feeling the strain of inflation. “This budget is for them,” he said. “We have once again cut taxes, and expanded the programs that the people of this county need.”
Latimer said the county was closing 2022 with a projected $65.9 million operating surplus, and the new budget would include no borrowing for tax certioraris or pensions, and no use of the fund balance. It would increase the reserve fund to about 19% of county operating expenditures, which he said would help stabilize the county’s bond ratings, currently AA+, AA+ and Aa1 ratings by Standard and Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s, respectively, “among the highest ratings awarded by these three major agencies.”
The 2023 budget, said Latimer, reflects a continued commitment to programs that meet the needs of Westchester County residents, adding $1 million to food security programs that serve 100 pantries, and increasing funding for homeless shelter contracts.
Among the highlighted expenditures, Latimer cited funding public safety, Department of Corrections and Department of Probation “at the highest level they have ever been funded in Westchester County history — a total of $260.9 million.” Among the spending items in this portion of the budget are adding an IT coordinator and crime data analyst for public safety; three additional school resource officers in Katonah-Lewisboro, North Salem and Hendrick Hudson; and a new class of corrections officers in 2023.
The Westchester County Health Department will receive $220.8 million in the budget, with $17.2 million for the Department of Community Mental Health. Included are $1 million for maternal mortality, and expansion of federally qualified health centers/neighborhood health centers by $1 million, for a total $3 million. Also included are $6.1 million for Project Alliance Mobile Crisis Response Team, Crisis Network and 988 Suicide Crisis Lifeline; $565,000 for Opioid Response and Overdose Prevention Initiative; and $737,892 for early childhood mental health services.
“The programs and funding in this proposed budget will further foster programs and supports for people with mental health, addiction and co-occurring disorder needs,” said DCMH Commissioner Michael Orth.
Economic development accounts for $6 million, with a focus on the life sciences, tourism and health care sectors. This includes $1.4 million for the Downtown Improvement Grant Program.
Additional funding highlights cited by Latimer include $60.3 million for Parks and Recreation; $13 million for the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services; $4.7 million for the Youth Bureau; and $1.3 million for the County Human Rights Commission.
Under Parks and Recreation, a combined $28 million has been slotted for structural improvements at the Ice Casino and Playland Amusement Park. An additional $7 million has been allocated for Hilltop Hanover Farm and Environmental Center in Yorktown, and $3.3 million for Cranberry Lake Preserve improvements. Latimer said, “As the construction of the county’s historic investment in Playland continues, we look toward other park facilities that have suffered from underinvestment in the past.”
County Parks Commissioner Kathy O›Connor noted park usage has grown since the beginning of the pandemic. “We are focused on rebuilding and restoring our nationally accredited parks system, which is widely used by residents to maintain their physical and mental health,” she said.
Emergency Services funding is to include $3.3 million for EMS mutual aid support, along with money for ongoing threat assessment management operations, and two additional staff for the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan and to coordinate volunteers for Hazmat incidents. Emergency Services Commissioner Richard Wishnie noted an emphasis on “an all-hazards-approach of our office of emergency management as we begin to shift from Indian Point concerns to a focus on protecting our citizens from the effects of climate change.”
Funding for the Human Rights Commission includes an additional investigator, which Executive Director Tejash Sanchala said would “enable the commission to more efficiently process and adjudicate complaints of discrimination in employment, housing, places of public accommodations and in certain hate-related matters.” She said discrimination complaints have increased significantly in recent years.
Of interest to Scarsdale and Edgemont are services that include public safety; EV charging grants for local municipalities; Project Alliance, addressing needs of those with behavioral health challenges; HERRO program providing recruitment and retention incentives to assist local volunteer emergency services in attracting volunteers, which has been an issue for Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corps recently. Other positives for the community are the proposed spending on child care programs; support for victims of domestic violence; economic development programs; investment in health and mental health programs; and affordable housing.
Town Supervisor Paul Feiner emailed the Inquirer Nov. 22 with a comment that he is “very pleased that the county will be reducing taxes.”
“Greenburgh town property taxes will also be going down next year. If the fire districts and school districts would follow the county and town’s example, we could gradually end Westchester County’s distinction of having the highest, or almost the highest, property taxes in the United States. We all need to work together to encourage more sharing or consolidation of services so we can give taxpayers the most value for each dollar taxed,” said Feiner.
It is now up to the County Board of Legislators to consider and act on the proposed budget. The board hosted a public hearing in New Rochelle on Nov. 16; it will host another on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 7 p.m., which will be live streamed via Facebook, at the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center, 480 North Bedford Road, Chappaqua. A final public hearing will be held Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m. in the Board of Legislators chambers at 148 Martine Ave., 8th Floor, in White Plains. Participants will be allowed to speak and provide public comment at all scheduled dates with remote participation available via Webex at the White Plains meeting.
Further information regarding the FY2023 budget deliberations can be viewed on the Budget Dashboard section of the Board of Legislators website, westchesterlegislators.com.
— with reporting by Valerie Abrahams