WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Democratic lawmakers unveiled a budget they hope to pass with Republican legislators blessings Thursday that restores 180 positions, maintains staffing at six nature centers, and continues to fund neighborhood health centers without raising taxes.
Legislator Kenneth Jenkins (D-Yonkers), who chairs the Board of Legislators, called the $1.689 billion budget plan "heroic" for avoiding a tax hike or relying more on reserve funds, which could threaten the county's AAA bond ratings.
"We preserve essential services and infrastructure and maintain our investments in public safety, public health and the environment," said Jenkins. "We really just worked inside of the individual departments. We made sure we eliminated vacancies and made sure that we took those monies and those positions out."
In restoring funding for the Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Center, Hudson River Healthcare, Open Door Family Medical Center, legal service organizations for those facing eviction, and staff at nature centers, the legislators were unable to avoid 30 layoffs, according to Legislator Peter Harckham (D-Katonah).
"It's the balancing act once again. We can't go back to the tax payers for more assistance and yet the demand for services is still there," said Harckham, the majority Democratic leader. "We made great strides in putting most of them back, but given the constraints we were working under we couldnt get everybody back."
The layoffs that remain in the budget proposed by County Executive Robert Astorino, a Republican, are spread across all departments, except for those where federal and state funding can help finance jobs, such as the department of social services, the department of probation, and engineers in the department of public works and planning department.
"There is some funding that we don't need to do, it's not mandated, but it saves money on the mandated side," said Harckham. "It costs about $5 a day to keep a defendant in probation. It costs $300 to keep them in the corrections system per day. That's why we put probation back."
The same thinking motivated Democrats to restore funding for the Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, which Democrats say prevents those facing eviction from costing the county more in shelters. Likewise, funding neighborhood health centers will help keep emergency room costs down, according to Harckham.
"Child care keeps folks working. A dollar on day care saves $3 in food stamps, $5 in welfare, and $20 in shelter costs. That's a good investment," Harckham said of the Democrats' plan to keep parents co-payments for subsidized child care down to 20 percent of the difference between their income and the poverty level.
Other additions include, funding for Invest in Kids youth programs, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, ArtsWestchester, and capital projects for aging bridges.
Legislator James Maisano (R-New Rochelle) said the Republican lawmakers support some of the programs and positions Democrats have proposed adding to Astorino's preliminary budget plan, but only support 60 to 70 of the restored positions.
"If the commissioners sit in a budget committee meeting and say -- 'I dont need these positions. I can run my department without these positions' -- were going to take the commissioners' words very seriously," said Maisano, the Republican minority leader. "The Democrats are restoring most of those jobs and we think thats probably not thoughtful," said Maisano.
Maisano said conservative lawmakers agreed with Democrats that restoring probation officers, curator positions at county parks, and partially restoration of funding for the Cornell Cooperative Extension and ArtsWestchester.
Republicans, who face the Democrats' veto-proof, super-majority, will continue to battle funding for county legislators, which Maisano called a "slush fund."
"You can trust assured we will be battling again that slush fund. That is nothing more than a legislative slush fund for county legislators to give money to their pet projects," said Maisano.
Legislators are currently in party caucus, but must vote on a budget to present to Astorino before the end of Thursday. The county budget must be finalized by Dec. 27.
What do you think of the budget Democratic legislators intend to pass? What are your thoughts on the Republicans' objections? Join the conversation below.
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