Editor’s Note: Jim Martorano is a former Yorktown councilman (1991-2010). He is a regular columnist in our sister paper, Yorktown News.
George Latimer, our new county executive, has been in office now for a little over half a year. I thought it might be a good time to check in with my friend to see how things were going.
What happened last November?
The election last November brought change throughout Westchester County. In my race, we were fortunate to defeat a two-term incumbent who had won big elections in the past. We reversed that trend and won by 14 points, carrying 19 out of 25 communities. In addition, the Board of Legislators changed, my party now holds a 13-4 majority...Many towns went our way as well, for example: Pound Ridge, Lewisboro, Peekskill.
As the new county executive, how does your approach differ from your predecessor?
We’ve been working on many projects very pragmatically. My predecessor was very conservative and, of course, people who followed and supported him backed his ideological approach. I have a more progressive background, but as we approach each issue we are looking for practical solutions that meet the needs of the people of the county, not the needs of some ideology.
Can you give me any examples of this pragmatic approach?
I can give you two examples. First, the Miller House in North Castle…a historic farmhouse of Revolutionary War fame. That building was so neglected it basically collapsed due to the prior administration haggling over money for seven years. We came in, met with local leadership, came up with money from the state—problem was solved, no mess, no fuss. A second example is the Westhelp project in Greenburg, which is an affordable housing project designed to help the homeless. After 20 years, it had reverted back to the county. For seven years, nothing was done on a county level. We put our people to work on it, we came up with a plan and now we have 74 units of affordable senior housing in place. Done!
Would it be fair to say that in ways both big and small you’ve attempted to change the face of county government?
We’ve done a lot in a short period of time. We were cognizant of our campaign promises and have made strides to fulfill them. We’ve banned the gun show, passed the Immigrant Protection Act, passed a ban on salary history. (The ban on salary history prevents a future employer from asking about your salary with a view towards undercutting what you are worth at your new job.) So, yes, we are changing the face of county government, finding practical solutions that make sense for our constituents.
What has been the response in the community thus far?
Very positive. We’ve been out in the community a lot. I’ve done coffees with county legislators at my side. Look, every issue has people on both sides. But we want to hear from everyone. Whatever your feelings, come down and join us. We’ve been to many towns and communities throughout Westchester and we’re going to try and hit them all. Historically, I think it’s a first, county executive and county legislators taking questions together. We don’t have pre-screened questions. It’s clearly a new vibe. Please talk to us when we come to your community.
Does your administration have a persona?
We are an energetic, progressive and pragmatic administration. We believe that the majority of people in Westchester support our initiatives. I have a very good relationship with municipal governments, with the Board of Legislators. So we are moving forward together.
What’s on the immediate horizon for Westchester County?
Six months and so far, so good. Make no mistake about it, we have a long way to go. Of course the budget looms ahead of us. We have issues regarding the airport and Rye Playland that are very problematic as well as a new contract with C.S.E.A., which is seven years in the making…We are going to be tested, but I am confident. I approach these challenges the way I approached the campaign and every other issue that I’ve confronted in the 30 years that you and I have known each other: very low key, very regular guy, pragmatic and down to earth. I don’t drive around with a police escort. I don’t show up looking to receive accolades. I just want to be a good county executive and give the wonderful people of Westchester a government they can be proud of.
So, I guess you’re telling me Yankee tickets are out of the question?
Sorry about that.
Tell us a little about the upcoming budget.
The prior administration proclaimed how wonderful it was not to raise county taxes. The reality is that your county tax bill is  percent of your entire bill and, even though your county tax bill remained stagnant, your bill went up anyway due to increasing school taxes and other levies. So, if your bill is $20,000 a year you are paying $5,000 to the county, and in some cases $4,000, but in school taxes you’re paying $13,000. So, if school taxes go up 2 percent, your overall tax bill goes up considerably. So, for seven years we heard, “Your taxes didn’t go up,” but they did. More importantly, the starvation diet that the county was on meant that capital projects did not move as fast as they should have and things were just left to deteriorate. The results are evident today. For example: Playland never received the capital it needed and the Bronx River Parkway is in terrible shape. I’ve got to catch up in all these areas. Given the level of neglect to our capital structure, it’s going to take me a couple of years to fix what I’ve been given.
You know, having been a councilman for 20 years, I know that the people of Westchester County are very intelligent. They know when people are trying to blow smoke and not being straight with them. My administration will be pragmatic, realistic and intelligent. We are going to diligently look at all the county’s needs and come up with the best budget possible.