This is part two of my interview with County Board of Legislators Chairman Michael Kaplowitz.
How long is your term as chairman?
They are two-year terms. Generally, chairs last for three terms. I will be running for re-election this November and hopefully my constituents will look at my 19 years and be willing to give me another term. I will be making my case and hope to be back here next year doing the job that I love.
Will this be another year of no tax increases for the county?
The levy was flat. We have kept taxes flat for seven years. And although we remain one of the highest taxed counties in the nation, it’s not because of the county tax—it’s basically because of the school tax, which is voted on every year. But that’s important, too, because obviously it educates our children and also it keeps our home values up.
Is the county going to sell the airport?
Taking the model we used in Playland—of private/public collaboration—we received a proposal from a group called Oaktree some time ago to sign a 40-year lease to divest ourselves of our role at the airport. Even though it’s a lease and we would continue to own the land, when you’re talking 40 years it’s considered a “sale.”
What people don’t realize right now, is that while it says Westchester County Airport, and it’s “run” by the county, it’s really not. We only have three county employees there; the rest of the operation is run by a private company called AvPORTS. That company literally manages the airport for us pursuant to a contract we have with them.
By law, for budget purposes, there are two boxes, the county box and the airport box. So when you pay for parking, buy a hamburger there, or pay various fees, all that income stays at the airport. The county executive, to his credit, noticed that Bill Clinton had passed a law in 1996, which would allow us to take these funds (almost $20 million) and bring them over to the county box, which would then allow us to use that money for general county purposes.
Mr. Astorino found a firm that would help us accomplish this, but he got a little ahead of himself and didn’t go out for bid. Nothing illegal about that, but we (the Board of Legislators) felt that we weren’t necessarily getting full value and more importantly we didn’t have enough time to vet the proposed lessee. So what we are doing now is an RFP process, where we will get a proposal drafted soon. Once out there, we hope we can attract multiple bidders. We will then select the firm that can give us the most money and still provide great service.
We were supposed to get around $130 million under the proposed deal, but we are hoping that we can do better. But let’s not forget of equal concern for the board is that the airport is run on the highest level. We want it safe; run well, environmentally sound and operationally a good neighbor. Remember that it sits next to a main source of drinking water for millions of New Yorkers—the whole idea presents us with an amazing opportunity and we want to wrap this up within a year.
Let’s talk about a topic that I know you have spent so much time on over the last 16 years: Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Fill us in on the latest developments, please.
After 9/11, there was concern about Indian Point from a security standpoint—but all of the proposals to convert it to an alternative energy producer went by the wayside. A couple of weeks ago, the governor announced that Entergy, the company that runs Indian Point, had decided to close the plant.
Why would they do that?
They are doing that for purely economic reasons. The price of gas has fallen so low that the nuclear power plants can’t charge enough to recover their expenses. So Entergy is out. So, whether you like nuclear power or not, whether you like Entergy or not, in 2021 it’s going, it’s closing. So let’s focus on the only issue left—not safe or not safe, desirable or not desirable—what do we do in 2021?
I’ve met with the governor and all the local officials to see if we can formulate a plan—because its closing will have dramatic repercussions. We need to find an alternative that can replace all the energy we will be losing, the property taxes and the jobs. For example, the plant pays $35 to $40 million in taxes every year with around $5 million or so going to the county. That would amount to a 1-percent tax increase for all our county residents. This development effects so many entities besides the county, including the local municipalities and fire districts, schools, etc. Therefore, it’s imperative that we get a comprehensive plan in place, which is exactly what I intend to do. That plan must provide us with the energy, tax dollars, the jobs, the environmental safeguards and the security we all want.
As always, thank you Chairman Kaplowitz for your time and valuable insights!