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'Ask Astorino' Outlines County Exec's Plans, Concerns

Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino hosted an open town hall meeting in White Plains Wednesday evening.

Arnita Carter wanted to know if the county can pressure her former employer to deliver a needed check to her mailbox. Annemarie Kis-Horvath wanted to make sure programs at the county nature centers won't disappear.

About 100 people attended the "Ask Astorino" town hall meeting with County Executive Robert Astorino at White Plains City Hall Wednesday night, most with a different problem or issue they wanted to discuss.

Kis-Horvath, a White Plains resident who brought her two sons to the meeting, said she hoped for assurance that the county's nature preserves won't fall victim to cuts during next year's budget discussions. The county nearly for nature centers in six preserves last year.

"It brings tremendous value to the community," Kis-Horvath said. "I would be devastated if they shut it down."

Other questions included everything from bus lines to public swimming pools to layoffs at Westchester Medical Center.

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Astorino, who began the evening with a 40-minute presentation focused mostly on financial issues within county government, said he plans to keep funding for all essential county services. What constitutes an "essential", however, depends on who you ask.

"Our revenue is flat lining, but our expenses are up, up, up," Astorino said during his presentation. Among other concerns, he said the county's credit rating; tax rate and negotiations with employees are at the top of his list. Specifically, the county's dwindling reserve funds have become a problem, he says, because of out of control spending.

"Every year, instead of making the tough decisions (the reserve fund) has gone down," he said.

Astorino also discussed the controversial affordable housing settlement. He told residents Wednesday the county is actually ahead of schedule as it works to meet a federal mandate that the county create more affordable housing within its borders. But he told the audience the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has gone too far with requests for municipalities to strip height and density requirements within zoning codes.

"If the federal government has its way, any neighborhood, Gedney, any neighborhood, will have any type of housing on it," Astorino said. "That's the battle we are fighting."

The question and answer session provided balanced requests for cuts and extended services. One man asked about fixing some of the county's pools, others said they wanted tax cuts. Astorino explained difficult decisions need to be made, and there are some programs the county simply can't afford given the current economic climate.

"That's really the reality we face today," he said.

Carter, who is from Mt. Vernon, was joined by several former co-workers recently laid off at Westchester Medical Center. She is upset that she hasn't been compensated for sick and vacation time she accrued during her employment. Carter said she hoped the county government would use its influence on the hospital's board to push her payments through, but was told it isn't that simple.

"Where did the money go?" she asked, adding that her bosses received raises while she and about 260 co-workers were laid off.

Astorino said the hospital has been private since 1998, and that the influence government has on the decisions there are minimal. It wasn't the response Carter said she hoped for, but she said after the session at least she has some answers.

When asked about overall spending within the county government—and overall cost of living in Westchester County, Astorino said changes must be made to reverse the culture of spending within all levels of government.

"The prospect of my son or daughter being able to live in Westchester County is becoming less and less and less," he said. "That scares me."

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