In general, I love being number one. In 2007, I was the top ranked agent in the Westchester Putnam MLS for single family home closings. I was very proud. I also won a high school wrestling tournament my senior year of high school. Very gratifying. Westchester County is also number one in the USA in something, but I doubt anyone will celebrate. What are we the champion in? High property taxes.
I have to say, that being number 1 in a nation of over 300 million with who knows how many thousands of counties must really take work. This is especially the case when neighboring Fairfield County, CT pays about half the taxes on similar property with not a scintilla of sacrifice to their quality of life, education, or safety.
How did we get here? Well, I would place plenty of culpability on our former 3-term county executive, who spent money like a drunken sailor, was ubiquitous in the local society pages, loved to spam our telephones with recorded messages and called people who wanted to reduce or eliminate county government “clueless.” But overall, we do not have a sustainable municipal structure. The 19th century model of villages, towns and county governments with overlapping elected officials and redundant services is a huge chunk of the problem. The preponderance of boutique school districts with vast resources concentrated in small wealthy villages with high schools of 300 students next to less affluent cities with thousands in their high school(s) is another big problem.
In Connecticut, villages are for postal addresses and nothing else. In my home town of Ossining, we have two villages with separate governments, police departments and municipal services, to go along with the unincorporated town with its own government, police department and municipal services.
Westchester also has lots of school districts that are minuscule in size, with the discussion of consolidation occasionally coming up but vetoed for reasons often not discussed in polite company. The overlap in administrations, superintendents, principals and other roles continues to add to the black hole of spending.
Other problems loom, such as a $50 million equal housing lawsuit the county must contend with, as well as the ever growing pensions of public employees with defined benefits flying in opposite directions of the markets and defined contributions an anathema to the unions.
It is my hope that first term County Executive Astorino will be given the chance to eliminate the waste, and bring county spending and government in line with sanity. The town of Ossining police department has just agreed to merge with the county force, which will save some money. But we have a long way to go.