The following is the second part of my recent interview with newly elected Westchester County executive, George Latimer.
Can you update us on what’s going on with the county’s role in Westchester Airport? I know your predecessor had plans to sell off the county’s interest.
We’ve endeavored to have some serious public discussions on the future of the airport. Prior to us coming into office, there had been very little public input on public policy in general. In my first six months, I’ve tried to change that.
Of course, the starting point with any discussion about any county issue, including the airport, is a consideration of how it fits into the county’s overall mission. To comprehend that, you have to refer to our master plan. Yet, we haven’t done a master plan since the late 1980s. The truth is that we need to lay out a new vision. We’ve got some grant money to write a new master plan but during the last five years, not much was done. So, once again, I inherited an unfinished product. In addition, what had been done is not anywhere near sufficient. We will need to submit a supplemental version. So, that’s the first thing we need to get done.
How important is having a master plan?
It’s a critical first step. It lays out a game plan. My predecessor had a plan to, in effect, sell off the airport. That sale would bring in a certain amount of money, which would be employed to satisfy the budget deficit in any given year. In my opinion, that’s bad public policy. It’s burning furniture for firewood.
So, what do we do now?
We are looking strategically at the airport. It is important to maintain…it’s an economic engine for the county. But, the real issues surrounding the airport center around the people who live in Chappaqua and Pleasantville who are frustrated by the constant air traffic over their homes. We want to address, head on, the quality-of-life issues of noise, air pollution, water pollution, etc. and that’s going to be the focus of our public policy at the airport; not figuring out how to bring in some private entity and give them the airport to run while we lose control over it. Yes, it’s clearly a balancing act; it’s not simply all of this and all of that. But we will get it done.
Would it be fair to say that you are asking for more citizen involvement in this and other county decisions?
This is one of the challenges of citizenship. We hear it constantly debated as to who is and who is not a citizen is in our society. People say, “I’m a citizen!” Well, great. But, do you follow what’s going on? Do you only care about your tax bill? Do you only vote for the person who is in your political party, whether it be a Republican or Democrat? If you’re really a citizen the way Jefferson and Adams envisioned it, you’re involved in public policy discussions because, when all is said and done, it’s the peoples’ government. Too long, people have taken the attitude, “I don’t want to know, just don’t spend my money!” That’s just not sufficient.
During your first six months, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
What got a lot of attention was banning the gun show. Why did we do it? We basically said that the gun show at the Westchester Center is a piece of business we are no longer going to accept. Nothing illegal about the show, this has nothing to do with a person’s rights under the Second Amendment. What we are trying to say is that we want family friendly entertainment at the County Center and not a glorification of something that for some people is very scary.
Were you able to replace the gun show with something else?
We certainly did. We signed a contract with a women’s professional basketball team, the New York Liberty, which will now hold their home games in our arena. We also got one high school basketball tournament back after it appeared they were on their way out as our negotiations proved fruitful. They’re staying with us.
In addition, we are working feverishly on a number of capital projects, which are not yet completed. Most importantly, we have changed the tone of county government. Ours is to be positive and proactive with an emphasis on finding practical solutions and seeking out community input.
What are the most challenging upcoming issues?
The budget. We inherited a $32 million gap in the budget. In 2017, we had $32 million more in expenses than we did revenue, with the added problem that a large portion of it are mandates we can’t control. This is all stuff that happened before I took over. We are going to close that budget gap, which extends through this year.
It’s too early yet to know how this will play out. We don’t know yet what help the sales tax may be or the result of a pending court case with regard to a proposed internet tax. For our part, we are looking to save money through shared services, renting out space for solar energy panel use, looking at a possible hotel-type tax on bed and breakfast entrepreneurs, and matching money from the state wherever feasible. Also, we are exploring energy and space savings, etc. We are working in a whole host of areas to try to get us to the magic number so we don’t have a huge tax increase come budget time.
What kind of toll has this demanding 24/7 job had on your private life?
It is a 24/7 commitment for me, no doubt. Given my roots as a local councilman, I’m used to one-on-one contact with my constituents. But, the county is large and it’s problematic to maintain that same level of contact, but I am trying to be out in the community as much as possible. So, for example, on July 4th I was home for a barbeque; however, not for long. I ended up appearing at seven events in five different communities. But, that’s what the job is and you know it when you run for it and, to be totally honest, I love it. I promised the people of Westchester I would give this job my all…and that’s exactly what I intend to do.
Thank you, George, for taking time out of your crazy schedule to spend some time talking with me.
It’s my pleasure.