In the dark after eight Democratic legislators left the chambers and turned out the lights, a bi-partisan coalition of nine county lawmakers today produced a $1.7 billion budget package signed by County Executive Robert Astorino.
"This is a good, responsible budget," Astorino said. "While it has been modified from what I originally proposed, it meets all my objectives. There is no increase in the tax levy and there is no use of reserves that could jeopardize the county's AAA credit ratings."
Seven Republicans and two Democrats on the county Board of Legislators formed a coalition to approve the spending plan in a 9-0 vote. The remaining eight Democrats walked out after a hasty motion to end the hearing wasn't properly acted on, Astorino said.
"Obviously I did not like the antics of the eight Democrats, but that's something they are going to have to defend," Astorino said.
Democrats Michael Kaplowitz and Virginia Perez made the difference in today's 9-0 vote.
"It wasn't about being popular with our party, it was about doing what was right," Perez, a Yonkers legislator, said, "what was right for our constituents and what was right for the county as a whole."
Before the agreement was reached the budget faced the possibility of a veto. If legislators failed to reach a new budget the 2012 spending plan would have rolled over to next year, creating a flurry of financial issues moving forward.
"It is never easy to do what they did, quite frankly, politically," Astorino said. "But they had the courage to do what was right."
Perez and Kaplowitz said a key issue during the final negotiations was the minimum childcare contributions asked of families near the poverty level. Astorino's original proposal increased the minimum contribution from 20 to 35 percent for county programs. The two sides settled at 27 percent.
The final budget also restores 27 jobs that were cut in Astorino's original budget proposal, including three park curator positions and five department of public works engineers.
"The budget approved this afternoon essentially splits the difference between my initial proposal and the proposal by the Democrats on the board," Astorino said.
Democrats also wanted to use money from the county's reserve funds to pay for $13 million in tax certioraris in 2013, a sticking point throughout public negotiations. The final budget does not use any of the county's reserves.
"It takes compromise," Kaplowitz, whose district includes Somers, New Castle and Yorktown, said. "I'm proud to have worked with anybody and everybody who was willing to compromise without compromising."
Legislators Spar Over Legitimacy of the Vote
Members of the board disagree over whether the approval was done legitimately.
Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) led the eight Democrats who left the legislators chambers Friday. Republican Minority Leader James Maisano (R-New Rochelle) took over the chair position for the final vote.
"The other people ran out of the chambers, but nine people stayed in there and did the job," Maisano said. "They failed to lead the people of Westchester today."
Majority Leader Peter Harckham (D-North Salem), called the action from the Republicans and two of his fellow Democrats a "circus" and a "faux coup."
Harckham argued that the legislators' act was not allowed because Legislator (and budget committee head) Judy Myers decided to recommit, or send back a proposal to her committee. There was a vote to suspend the normal recommit process, Harckham said, but that only applied to removing a restriction on who could offer amendments to the legislation. The recommit process normally restricts the amendments process to use by committee chair, Board of Legislators chair or majority leader, he said.
Harckham also argued that his caucus did not do a walk out, but rather the meeting was adjourned.
"There was no meeting," Harckham said, in terms of procedure, about the action by the remaining legislators.
Harckham maintains that Democrats are open to continuing talks with Astorino over approving a budget, and noted that the deadline for having one has not arrived. Should a budget not be approved on time - the deadline is weeks away - then the 2012 budget's terms would be used for 2013, Harckham said.
Kaplowitz argues that the suspension vote on recommiting the budget does, in fact, supersede Myers' authority. He also said that the Democrats had a motion to adjourn that was seconded but not approved, and thus the board was still in session when the vote on the budget was taken. He also believes that an adjournment vote would have lost.
Anticipating possible legal action following the non-conventional vote, Maisano said all procedures were followed before the nine remaining lawmakers cast their vote.
"They don't have a legal leg to stand on," he said.
When asked if legal action will be taken to challenge the action, Harckham replied that they don't have to, saying that there is "nothing to file a challenge against."
Harckham was asked what would happen if Astorino were to use what he signed, such as spending, and response that he would be violating the law.
Other changes from Astorino's original budget include:
The final package differs from the original budget plan made in November:
- Additional funding will help public safety, emergency services, probation and the District Attorney's Office.
- Cornell Cooperative Extension gets and added $200,000 — a total of $800,000.
- Arts in Westchester gets $500,000 more, for a total of $1.25 million.
- Other additions were made for legal services for immigrants ($200,000) and small business loans and technical assistance ($160,000).
“I can accept these changes,” said Astorino, “because the coalition made sure that it came up with a spending plan that did not raise taxes, did not under fund programs, did not hurt the county’s most needy — and did not in any way jeopardize the county’s three triple A bond ratings."
Patch Editor Tom Auchterlonie contributed to this story.