Crying foul over a budget process that sometimes leaves the minority party in the dark, Republicans from the Westchester County Board of Legislators are seeking change they say will bring additional transparency.
Republican legislators Michael Smith (District 3), Gordan Burrows (District 15) and Sheila Marcotte (District 10) proposed a resolution in September containing a provision that the county would not draw from its reserve balance for the 2013 budget. The provision would also ensure the 2013 budget has a zero percent tax increase and would provide the minority party, and public, 48 hours to review the budget between the additions and deletions process and when it goes to the chamber floor.
Smith, Burrows and Macotte joined John Ravitz, chief operating officer of the Business Council of Westchester, in support of the proposal Tuesday in front of the legislator's chambers in White Plains. The group said the proposal, which was voted down earlier this month, binds the county to a set of bi-partisan goals while ensuring all parties have a chance to review the budget.
“We need a framework,” Smith said. "We need a way to do this budget properly."
But with budget talks in their final stages, Democrats don't appear to agree to the same framework. BOL Chairman Kenneth Jenkins (D) said Tuesday no one has agreed to set a zero percent tax increase to date. Democrats also haven't agreed to stay out of the county's fund balance while constructing the 2013 budget.
“We’re focused on having all of the information and making intelligent decisions based on that," Jenkins said.
Republicans contend that dipping into the fund balance could reduce the county's bond rating. A reduced bond rating could lead to larger financial problems down the road.
Jenkins countered that using the fund balance is common practice, and downplayed the impact on the county's bond rating.
"It's the people's money, it's our savings account," Jenkins said. "We shouldn't be trying to stack up the piggy bank where people are going to get hurt."
Republicans said they have been left out of the budget process in past years, claiming that as the minority party in the BOL they once had less than 30 minutes to review a final county budget before it went to the floor.
“What is the problem with allowing the minority legislators in the body and the taxpayers of this county to have their fair voice in saying what this budget is?” Smith asked. “The 10 hours of discussion that goes on beforehand doesn't mean anything if the minority party gets 28 minutes to review a $1.7 million budget before it comes up for a vote.”
In response, Jenkins said Republicans have ample time to review the budget and participate in budget meetings through video conferences and conference calls. He added that the budget process has been in place for decades and the timeline, which begins in May, has already been established.
If Republican legislators want to change the process Jenkins said they would need to bring it to the County Charter Revision Committee.
“We’ve got to play by the rules all the time and not pick out the ones that we just don’t like," Jenkins said.