Milt Hoffman is the dean of Westchester County's journalists, a man I learned from as a young reporter for WVOX when he was still Gannett's political columnist in the 1980s.
I don't agree, of course, but Milt maps out a strong case. As editor of Rethinking's blog, I will respond -- respecting Mr. Hoffman's wonderful history of what former Westchester County Executive Andrew P. O'Rourke once called the "Athens of counties" in the 1980s and 1990s.
"Undoubtedly, the movement to rid the county of its government took hold when it was revealed real estate taxes in Westchester are the highest of any county in the nation. The county government detractors, however, ignore the fact that the portion of taxpayer dollars that is paid to the county is less than 20 percent of the total bill; the bulk is collected by the 40 public school districts and 45 cities, towns and villages. Lost also in the debate is the fact that state aid to Westchester, its municipalities and school districts is among the lowest, if not the lowest. It has been that way for decades. Yes, Westchester government has become larger over the years as it has taken on more responsibilities, but invariably the performance of those responsibilities on the county level results in savings to local government and more efficient service."
I don't believe the school tax bill -- which is the result in most communities of a budget referendum vote -- should be lumped into the same argument as county and local municipal taxes.
Direct democracy might be needed in Westchester for all levels of government. It is for many fire districts too, where budgets are taken to a vote, and many county bond referendums depending on the costs. Library budgets are voted on in a number of communities.
Why can't we vote on the county budget?
School tax bill aside, the county tax bill is nearly HALF of your local tax bill. School districts need to economize too but that bill is paid locally for a local service. Parsing the percentages is a game of minutia but the compelling point is that the county portion is the most rapidly growing part of your tax bill annually -- the part you can't control (unless we vote the bums out of office).
... And what's wrong with Westchester residents believing that we should not be the highest taxed county in America?
Yes ... State aid has dropped, precariously, but shouldn't that be the hint to start appropriately downsizing government operations? Also, why can't lawmakers push for renegotiating of contracts for county government employees -- and why must administrative costs and salaries in our county government be so disproportionately higher than standard civil service contracts?
Milt's history of how county government grew is laudable and worthwhile to consider as lawmakers and residents alike consider more effective and efficient ways to deliver many of these services.
Philosophically, I would disagree that the county government is a more cost-effective steward of county services. Many of these state mandated services can be better managed by the state. It's akin to be held hostage and paying all the bills for your abduction. Let New York State take responsibility for its own services. Many other services can be returned back to the local communities where they can be better managed. Also, though it's hard to argue against Westchester County Government's great achievements, many of these municipal operations have grown too big. They could now be less expensively run through regionalization, consolidation and/or privatization.
Any non-essential services in such a dire economic climate are luxuries and taxpayers should not be required to pay for services they neither see no benefit from nor particularly need. The prioritizing of county government operations may perhaps be the single most dramatic result of how taxpayers are "rethinking" what little dollars are left in their pockets.
This homage by Mr. Hoffman to our parks, parkways, medical center, public transportion, recycling, sewers and airport demands consideration. But I believe we're entering an era of unfortunate government austerity, a time when we will all do without a lot of things, and Westchester County residents are grappling daily with what they will might do without. In many instances, the average resident doesn't have a choice.
They are already doing without.
Westchester County Government has to do without too. Elected lawmakers have to make the tough choices, unions needs to preserve their "rank and file" by not pricing themselves out of their jobs and political leaders must start leading the charge to ease the burden on the broader population.
Respecting Milt Hoffman's esteemed view, it's still time for this suburb's inflated public economy to also do without -- so that perhaps Westchester will still have a fighting chance to again be what its brilliant planners envisioned over the past century.