BY MICHAEL RICONDA
NEW CITY – Faced with similar challenges, Rockland County Executive Ed Day joined Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell for a panel discussion on ways to address their counties’ difficultes and inprove the economic outlook for the Lower Hudson Valley.
The panel, held at the Crowne Plaza in Suffern on April 25, focused on ways counties could share ideas and collaborate on common issues. Ultimately, the agreements between the three county executives vastly outweighed differences as all three expressed enthusiasm toward issues including mandate relief, government consolidation, the new Tappan Zee Bridge and improving the affordability of living in the Lower Hudson Valley.
As budgetary matters, mandates and the streamlining of government operations were major items which were often tied together in county budgets. Day championed a “very aggressive approach” toward efficiency, reduction of waste and self-sufficiency.
However, he also warned the cost of state mandates often undermined those efforts. In response to these problems, Day promoted his own efforts to trim, consolidate and re-structure county departments, touting it as part of the solution to Rockland’s fiscal woes and a way to partly make up for inaction and indifference in Albany.
“I look at an organization that can be vital, can move, can pivot, and can change with the times,” Day said.
Odell and Astorino agreed with Day. Astorino explaining the latter was out of county hands, particularly when it came to Medicaid reimbursements.
“We have no say on most of it, the eligibility, controlling costs, and other ways [to address mandates],” Astorino said. “The more we scream, the deafer they get in Albany.”
Odell added her own examples of troubles with mandates, explaining counties were held to an unfair double standard of paying mandates while being held responsible for consolidation efforts. She added that like Rockland and Westchester, a big chunk of Putnam County funds went to Albany.
“That leaves me as a county executive with controlling only thirty percent of my budget,” Odell stated.
The eagerness to streamline government took slightly different forms among the three speakers, with Astorino emphasizing tough budget decisions made to get the most out of Westchester’s budget while Day encouraged inter-county and even inter-state collaboration. In particular, Day pointed to his own work with Bergen County shortly after his swearing in and stressed he would work with whichever municipalities were willing.
“We’re finding commonalities and ways that we can share services,” Day said of Bergen County.
Odell explained Putnam’s issues with school taxes demanded similar consolidations, particularly in the area of office functions and labor agreements. She explained thanks to increased pressure to rein in budgets, counties now have more leverage and can even re-negotiate contracts to better meet their own needs.
“The trending is not about entitlements anymore,” Odell said.
The Tappan Zee Bridge was characterized as a critical infrastructural improvement, but one with imperfect or uncertain funding mechanisms. Concern among Rockland and Westchester residents has been high regarding tolls, and the county executives were not shy about expressing their own hopes for toll relief or frustrations regarding burdens paid by county residents.
The execs also worried over the loans used to pay for the bridge and the absence of grants. A lack of clear funding mechanisms to pay bridge expenses was a constant concern.
“The financing has not been forthcoming,” Astorino said. “They do not have the money to pay for this bridge. That is a major concern.”
The Mass Transit Task Force had previously promised an answer to the toll question this year, but postponed their decision, leaving bridge commuters in the dark. Day explained without a clear answer on tolls and no federal grants directed at the project, previous projections of a $14 toll remained a disturbing thought.
“Whether it be discounts or anything, that kind of number is unacceptable,” Day said.
Day was particularly concerned about Rockland’s sales tax revenue, which might shrink as Westchester residents opt to avoid expensive tolls rather than travel to retail outlets like the Palisades Center or the Shops at Nanuet.
Ultimately, livability is the bedrock issue for most residents, and the county executives each had their own take on it. Not surprisingly, all three favored support for seniors on fixed incomes, with Odell going so far as to explain their own work-volunteer and otherwise-was invaluable for her county.
While all three acknowledged a need for senior housing, they also sought to stem the outward flow of young people leaving for more livable areas. Day reiterated his own stance on taxes and presented it as not only a regional but a statewide issue, while Astorino was more eager to improve schools and draw young people back when they begin families.
The three county executives were brought together through Patterns for Progress, a nonprofit organization of business leaders, academic authorities and government officials dedicated to improving economic growth in nine Hudson Valley counties.