WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- County Executive Rob Astorino on Thursday provided updates on several areas of interest for Westchester residents while outlining a new plan in response to the opioid epidemic in his 2017 State of the County address in White Plains.
During the one hour-long address before a packed room at the County Court House, Astorino detailed progress on a number of fronts, including: Playland Amusement Park, a $1.2 billion science and technology hub in Mount Pleasant and unlocking $140 million in revenues at Westchester County Airport through a public-private partnership.
Astorino pledged to send the Board of Legislators a balanced budget in the fall that once again will not raise the county tax levy.
“I was elected to stop the tax madness, and we did just that by stopping the out-of-control spending,” said Astorino. “The county budget today is less than the budget was when we took office in 2010, which is unheard of. Taxes are still too high, but citizens and businesses know they can count on me to manage their tax dollars smartly and responsibly. And by the way, county government is running just fine on our $1.8 billion annual budget. Essential services are preserved and strengthened, our economy is growing, our credit rating is the highest for any county in the state, and our reserves remain strong.”
After sharing a personal story of family who lost their 22-year-old daughter to heroin, Astorino announced new plans to attack the growing crisis of opioid addiction that builds on the success of Westchester’s Safer Communities initiative, which tackles tough societal issues such as school safety in an age of terrorism and youth suicide by mobilizing and coordinating community resources and expertise.
Called Project WORTHY – Westchester Opioid Response Teams Helping Youth – the program will build response teams involving experts in health, law enforcement and mental health and parents, students, clergy and coaches who will work together to:
- Spot the warning signs of heroin and opioid abuse,
- Understand the mental health causes of addiction, such as depression, anxiety or pain management,
- Develop response strategies to pre-empt addiction.
Dr. Mark Herceg, Westchester County’s Commissioner of Mental Health, will lead the effort. Classes will be taught at central locations, such as the County Center, and teams will bring the program to schools and community centers.
“There is no illusion that this program will be a panacea,” said Astorino. “The work ahead will be tough, because the enemy is strong. But we go forward; confident we can and will make a difference. Because in the words of Teddy Roosevelt the worst thing you can do is nothing. That won’t happen in Westchester. We will continue to fight. Opioid addiction can be stopped, if we are all willing to take action against it, and we are.”
Astorino acknowledged the frustration and partisan divides dominating the public discourse across the country and spoke of the importance of listening to a public with opposing viewpoints and working with lawmakers and stakeholders in a balanced, persistent and bi-partisan manner. He cited his "Ask Astorino" town halls as productive ways of communicating directly with the public.
“As the County Executive for close to one million people, it’s my job to find middle ground – balance what divides us – and that’s why I have been committed to bringing county government to the people of Westchester and listening to what is on their minds,” Astorino said. “Good government doesn’t come quickly. Our system of checks and balances invites setbacks … No single individual, group or party has a monopoly on the best ideas and the right way to run things. Westchester works best when we approach it as a team sport.”
Astorino noted gains made in private sector employment -- nearly 44,000 new jobs since 2010 and a drop in the unemployment rate to 4.2 percent – while touting a number of other positive developments that make Westchester a desirable place to live and work, such as a 25 percent drop in crime; Westchester’s highly educated workforce; the county’s placement among the healthiest places in the country; its ranking as one of the top digital counties in the U.S., and a number of environmental initiatives, among other accomplishments.
During the speech, he also cited success in the County’s battle against homelessness – including Westchester’s Patriot Housing program that helped secure housing for over 500 previously homeless veterans – and, in a video, highlighted people who directly benefit from some of the County’s programs and services.
Astorino said the county has the opportunity, under a Federal Aviation Administration program, to unlock revenues from Westchester Airport to help pay for general services like police, parks, roads and day care. Westchester County is now seeking to enter into a public-private partnership as part of the FAA program. Bids are due back in 90 days, and the concept has bi-partisan support from the Board of Legislators.
“The idea is to create a long-term revenue stream so that money is coming into the County’s budget for decades to come,” Astorino said. “This will provide important relief to the ever increasing cost of government.”
In March, Westchester County won a decisive victory in New York State Supreme Court that allows the county and its partner, Standard Amusements, to invest $60 million into the world-famous park. The result will be new rides, new restaurants and new attractions in 2018.
“The kids get more exciting rides and taxpayers get a break,” Astorino said. “Smiles all around.”
And the park will be up-and-running this season on May 13, 2017.
Astorino asked the Board of Legislators to join him in a lawsuit aimed at protecting taxpayers, ratepayers, students and communities directly affected by the eventual closure of Indian Point.
Astorino noted that at stake are the loss of billions of dollars; the loss of tens of millions of dollars in local revenues to Westchester County, the Town of Cortlandt, the Village of Buchanan and the Hendrick Hudson School District; and the loss of 25 percent of the electricity for nine million people in Westchester and New York City. The lawsuit charges that the Governor failed to follow the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, before announcing plans to close Indian Point.
Westchester County exceeded the requirements of the 2009 federal housing settlement to develop 750 units of affordable housing in 31 mostly white communities by December 31, 2016 by delivering 790 units with another 100 in the pipeline.
“Our success surprised a lot of people. None more than the bureaucrats in their far away desks in Washington,” Astorino said. “They saw our communities as the problem, when in fact they were the solution. HUD wanted confrontation and litigation. We got the desired results with cooperation and collaboration.”
Astorino presented Armando “Chick” Galella of Sleepy Hollow with Westchester’s highest honor – the Distinguished Service Award. Galella is one of the few living veterans to have fought at Pearl Harbor. He also was awarded the Bronze Star for his Meritorious Service during the invasion of Okinawa.
“His modesty is part of who he is,” Astorino said. “But it can’t mask the truth that he is a hero and an example to all of us.”