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October 11, 2013

‘Pops, Patriots and Fireworks’

Pound Ridge/Scotts Corners

  1. Scotts Corner Market – Trinity Corners Shopping Center;  55 Westchester Avenue

  2. Pound Ridge Sunoco — 66 Westchester Avenue    

  3. Sam Parker Country Market — 257 Westchester Avenue    


Bedford Village

  1. Bedford Rexall Pharmacy — Hunting Ridge Mall; 424 Old Post Road  

  2. Village Green Deli — Village Green; Routes 22 and 172    

  3. Bedford Shell — Routes 22 and 172 (at blinking light); 848 So. Bedford Road

  4. Village Service Center —193 Pound Ridge Road (at Long Ridge Road intersection)    


Bedford Hills

  1. Bedford Hills Deli – 7 Babbitt Road    

  2. Bueti’s Deli – 526 Bedford Road (Route 117)


Katonah

  1. NoKA Joe’s – 25 Katonah Avenue    

  2. Steger’s Paper Mill – 89 Katonah Avenue    

  3. Katonah Pharmacy – Katonah Shopping Center; 294 Katonah Avenue   

  4. Bagel Shoppe – Katonah Shopping Center; 280 Katonah Avenue    

  5. Katonah Sunoco – 105 Bedford Road


Mount Kisco

  1. Teamo/Mt. Kisco News – 239 Main Street    


Cross River

  1. Bagel Boys Café – Cross River Shopping Center; Routes 121 and 35    

  2. Cross River Shell Station – Route 35    

  3. Cameron’s Deli –  890 Route 35    

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Big divide as county exec candidates discuss the  issues


By R.J. MARX


 

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, and his challenger Noam Bramson, the Democratic mayor of New Rochelle, came to Katonah this week to present their agendas and their viewpoints on a variety of issues in Westchester. Mr. Astorino, 46, from Mount Pleasant, was elected in November 2009. Mr. Bramson, 43, has served as the mayor of New Rochelle since 2006 and is a lifelong Westchester resident.

Mr. Astorino declined a one-on-one debate with Mr. Bramson and asked that the meetings be conducted separately. Mr. Astorino was interviewed on Friday, Oct. 4, and Mr. Bramson was interviewed on Monday, Oct. 7. Their responses have been edited. Both men were interviewed by The Record-Review editorial team of R.J. Marx, Don Heppner and Anthony R. Mancini.


Record-Review: Mr. Bramson, why are you choosing to run for county executive?

Mr. Bramson: Westchester County is a great community, a great place to live, a great place to raise a family. However, the direction of Westchester County under Rob Astorino has either been neglectful of or has actively undermined priorities that are important to our future.

Number one, we need a coherent plan to strengthen our economy and protect our environment. The county’s plan needs to extend beyond tax incentives or low-cost financing for particular deals, and encompass a broader approach. This should include developments in our urban centers, which most need the investment. And where there’s ready access to mass transit, it should include investments in infrastructure, especially transportation infrastructure, with an effort to unlock the economic potential of areas that are not realizing their full capacity to contribute to the regional economy. It has to encompass our human capital. We have employees and potential employees with the skills to seize the jobs of the future and to be magnets for these jobs.

Two, I think the administration’s focus on taxes has been little more than sloganeering. People have shelled out more than $800 million for increases in property tax levies since Rob Astorino took office. The big part of the problem is that we have dozens of municipalities and dozens of school districts doing things separately that they could be doing together. That does not mean it is necessary to eliminate or consolidate smaller villages or school districts, but we do need to create a framework that enables them to partner to achieve economies of scale and lower costs. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit with respect to road resurfacing, back office data, info systems, planning and admin systems, fleet maintenance, distribution of payroll and tax bills, flood-mitigation plans and sustainability planning — many areas where there’s an appetite from mayors and supervisors and superintendents to find a better and more efficient way to do things.

The third area is social services delivery. I begin with the proposition that our lives are interlinked when everyone has the opportunity to achieve their potential and that the best kind of program enables people to be independent and self-reliant and stand on their own two feet and contribute to their families and neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean I want to spend even a penny on a wasteful program. What we’ve seen over the past four years is a kind of mindless meat cleaver over social services in a way that is harmful to people in both the short and the long run.

We had, until recently, what was widely regarded as one of the best child care systems anywhere. The county has withdrawn from the Title XX program, the middle range; at the lowest income level, the county has significantly withdrawn its subsidy, so the typical family must spend thousands more out of pocket to obtain child care. These are people who can least afford it.


Record-Review: Do Mr. Bramson’s charges have merit? What about shared services?

Mr. Astorino: There’s a lot we are doing. Bedford with the Taxi & Limousine commission, the chief has spoken highly of it, as well as supervisor Lee Roberts.

On a practical level, I’ll point to what the county did with Ossining two years ago. Ossining said we cannot afford our police force. They asked if the county would take over the police functions. It had to be tax neutral for the rest of Westchester. The town of Ossining saves $600,000 and will save every year. It could be a new model going forward. We’re in discussion with other communities. It’s got to be bottom up. The community’s got to want it.

In terms of shared services for Westchester County’s public safety, we convened all law enforcement and all educators — every school district, every law enforcement agency, the FBI, homeland security, former commissioner Bill Bratton. We put everybody in the room at the same time. We discussed best practices, what to do; it was a multijurisdictional response.

Two months after that we met at the County Center with educators and members of the faith-based community and discussed the breakdown of the mental health system.

We’re spending the same amount of money on social services. We phased out the mental health department. We were the last county to be doing that. It was a conflict of interest to oversee our own department. We transitioned every patient to a state-run or a privately run mental health clinic.

We did everything that we said we would do. It’s my budgets that cut spending. We forced the legislators’ hand. Before we were there, taxes were going up every year. I was the one who cut taxes. To think the Democrats on the board had anything to do with that would be ludicrous. We totally shifted the conversations and the practices in this county. That’s what I said I would do in 2009, and I continue to govern in that way.

Mr. Bramson and I have a very different view on what Westchester should be and how Westchester should be run. Mr. Bramson’s record in New Rochelle is a preview on a smaller scale of what he would do as county executive. His tax-and-spend record is extraordinarily inappropriate, I believe 109 percent. Even if you average it out over 18 years, it’s still about 6 1/2 percent. He’s got to be responsible for his record. It’s 16 years divided by 109, which comes out to 6.9 percent per year, which is not acceptable. That was not even in dispute.

Mr. Bramson: I’ve been elected five times in New Rochelle, most recently with 79 percent of the vote, which is a record. Clearly the people of New Rochelle, who have had the opportunity to see my record and actions, have reached the judgment that I’m doing a pretty good job.

That is a little more persuasive than one of Mr. Astorino’s negative campaign commercials. His arguments fall into one of two categories. One, the claims that are flat out false. We actually brought the ads to the fair campaign practices committee; if you look at the record you’ll see that they’ve ruled for Democrats and Republicans and have never demonstrated a bias in one direction or another. As far as I know, he’s the first candidate who’s ever tried to resist their conclusions by claiming that they’re biased. We brought five specific claims. They ruled in our favor on all counts, that is, the statements were found untrue or completely misleading.

The other category is statistics taken out of context to create a misleading impression. The number about taxes is a perfect example. He says taxes have gone up 109 percent. That’s measured over 18 years: the 10 years I was on council, eight years I was mayor. If you look at the same stretch of time in each of the big cities of Westchester County, you’ll find that the rate of increase in New Rochelle was the lowest. Today our municipal tax rate as a percentage of $1,000 market value is also the lowest among the big cities of Westchester. When people know the truth, it’s clear we’ve actually been respectful of every penny that comes to us. We can economize; we have a lean, efficient workforce, one of the smallest in our modern history.


Record-Review: How do you respond that the Campaign Fair Practices committee found your claims false?

Mr. Astorino: First of all, the campaign practices ruling was utter semantics, made by a board with 11 Democrats and one Republican. Their whole issue was the wording. He takes a city car. He disputed that. He takes a city car. You either do or don’t get a car from the city. You either do or do not receive health care for life after five years; he did. You either do or do not raise your salary 40 percent; he did.

We’re not guessing how he would be; he’s already said that he would be raising taxes if he got in there. I think it’s had harmful effects in New Rochelle. Businesses are fleeing. It’s empty storefront, dollar stores — there’s no economic development plan.

Compare that with what I have done. We’ve made tough choices that limited county government. We actually reduced the workforce by 15 percent, and we did that through attrition and a big buyout. We had a limited number of layoffs. We had all of the unions paying for their health care. We have two that have not signed yet. The seventh will sign, while the CSEA, which is the biggest, would rather see what the election results are.

But now union members are paying a portion of their health care costs like everyone else. New hires are paying into retirement. And I led the way. One of the first things I did in office was to start paying for my health care. I wouldn’t ask my negotiators to ask someone to take something that wasn’t done by me. 

I’ve been endorsed by the Teamsters, the corrections officers, PBA — that’s a byproduct of us being accessible, fair, negotiating in good faith. The CSEA is the only one that is not endorsing us. They’re praying he can win so they can be back in control.

Mr. Bramson: Buyer beware on Mr. Astorino’s claims. We have the unanimous support of the AFL-CIO, which is an umbrella for lots and lots of unions, including painters, communications, 1199, teachers. If he’s saying I have the CSEA and that’s it, that’s completely made up. We have very significant backing from labor in both public and private sectors, and I’m proud of that.

But I’ve said to my own friends in labor, my job as county executive will be to be a tough negotiator and make sure we have fiscally sustainable contracts. I’m sure we will be grumbling with each other, but I will do so in a way that is honest and respectful of other people’s talents and contributions to our organization and be straightforward in what we can achieve. I think that it is much more constructive to work with colleagues in government than screaming and yelling and demonizing people. I don’t think you get a good work product from others in that fashion.


Record-Review: Mr. Astorino, give us your assessment of the housing settlement situation. Are 10,000 units required from the settlement or is the number 750, as your opponent states?

Mr. Astorino: The 10,000 remark has been proven true. In the monitor’s letter to each community he demanded to know where they are with that allotment and allocation from that study. My opponent says I made it all up. He should talk to the communities who were beyond angry in their response to the monitor, who is trying to hold them to a study that doesn’t exist. The study was never adopted by the county. It was by an ad hoc committee of the county, but it went nowhere. All of a sudden it was dusted off and taken off the shelf, and suddenly it’s the new standard.

The 750 number is not true. The deputy secretary of HUD himself has said 750 minimum is a starting point. Don’t listen to the quotes, read the letters, and the letters are damning. They’ve done a masterful job of clouding this issue, but their own words on their own letterhead are facts, and where they are going is frightening. They’ve said that environmental concerns — water and sewer protections, height, density, acreage, number of bedrooms — none of that should be used to restrict housing choices. That’s in their letter. We have a letter from March 13 that reiterates that.

Mr. Bramson: I think it’s time to get this divisive, expensive mess behind us, and Mr. Astorino has needlessly prolonged the dispute costing us $20 million and counting and withheld public grants and legal expenses without in any way advancing the interests of the communities that he serves.

In place of this losing strategy of obstructionism and defiance, communication by press release and press conference, I would employ a consultative, collaborative strategy that would include county officials, federal officials and town officials in order to get this resolved.

What’s particularly distressing is that having failed to solve the real problem in the real world, the county executive is engaged in an unprecedented campaign of public deception intended to create an imaginary threat so that he can pose as a defender against it. His claim that the federal requirement has moved up to 11,000 units from 750 is false; his claim that it is necessary to eliminate all local zoning codes in order to permit the construction of a high-rise building on every block is false.

He points to letters — March, May. I encourage you to read those letters yourself. They say nothing of the sort. There has been subsequent correspondence that addresses these points directly. It’s been put to the federal government and the housing monitor point blank: Are you saying that we now must build 10,689 units? Are you saying we must eliminate zoning? No, no, no, no, no. There’s no truth to it. It’s a complete fantasy. It’s very hard to solve a real problem when you either don’t understand it or you’re lying about it. The approach Mr. Astorino has employed has prolonged this dispute and been harmful to the county. It’s fine to fight if you think it’s the right posture. The problem is he’s fighting and losing.


Record-Review: If you don’t believe it’s the right thing to do, Mr. Astorino, why bother to comply with the terms of the housing settlement?

Mr. Astorino: It’s a court-agreed settlement. What we’ve said, we’re complying. Leave us alone and let us finish this. We’re at 395 units that are already approved, under construction, constructed, or with financing. The goal for this year was 300. We’re five away from meeting next year’s allotment. We’re a full year ahead of schedule. We’re in full compliance. Justice department courts have said the same thing. What we’re not in agreement with is the extracurricular stuff with zoning and local land use. They’re way out of bounds with this, and by the way, Mr. Bramson’s accusations are false. That’s where we stand, and the communities are with us.

The report cards are outrageous; they are factually incorrect. Almost every community responded, corrected the monitor and was outraged at the accusation that their housing was discriminatory. I have said very firmly that our communities are correct under the state constitution. Land use is the right of each community to plan and zone for themselves.

Obviously there are guidelines. The Berenson decision is really the decision that this all stems from, that each community on a regional basis should take part in affordable housing choices, but in no way do they have a responsibility to have it in every zone or section. But every community has been doing it on its own.


Record-Review: Mr. Bramson, what would you say to citizens and officials in a town like Pound Ridge, which received “poor” marks from the monitor in his report?

Mr. Bramson: I would be sitting down with my own planning officials, with Pound Ridge officials, and federal officials and relevant federal officials, to talk about specific items referenced in the monitor’s report and to talk about options to address those issues. It may be those conversations would result in a change  in the federal determination or there may be agreement on reasonable measures that would address the changes in the terms of the federal determination or address those in the outline. Under no circumstances would there be the elimination of zoning codes or the allowance of multifamily housing in every area. That’s never been proposed by anybody.

I don’t use this word lightly because it’s an ugly word, but he’s lying to say that there would be an elimination of zoning codes. There’s some areas where there’s a gray area, where there’s room for interpretation. Reasonable people can reach different conclusions; this isn’t one of them.

The federal government’s standards have been very clear, and when it comes to the settlement, it’s not even a function of the settlement, it has to do with pre-existing law on what defines exclusionary zoning. The standard is whether the zoning code in its entirety makes it impossible to build multifamily zoning in the community. If that’s the standard of the zoning code, then there’s a problem with exclusionary zoning. The remedy is not to allow multifamily housing everywhere, it is to find reasonable places where reasonable levels of housing can be constructed. Ideally, you’d want to marry that with sensible planning principles so that you have adequate infrastructure, access to mass transit, so that you apply the same standards you want for any kind of housing to affordable housing specifically. That’s the kind of intelligent conversation that needs to occur rather than these fantasies and scare tactics that have come out of the Astorino admin, which are not helping us. It’s outrageous that he’s posing as the defender of municipalities when, in fact, what he’s doing is washing his hands of any responsibility for what’s happening in those municipalities. He’s placing municipalities like Pound Ridge at greater risk of being sued by the federal government or some other entity rather than rolling up his sleeves and solving the problem so all of us can move on.

My approach would be fundamentally different. You’d better believe I would stand up for the people of Westchester to protect our environment, to protect our quality of life, to make sure rational planning principles are being employed, but I’d do it in a way that was successful and actually got us to the goal, as opposed to costing us millions of dollars and prolonging the fight without any end.


Record-Review: Mr. Astorino, do you regret challenging source-of-income legislation, which was ultimately decided against the county in the courts?

Mr. Astorino: Not at all. There were some serious issues. Fundamental principle issues as well as federalism issues, constitutional issues, but the court spoke. That was the outline of the settlement that both sides agreed on. I took a principled stand.


Record-Review: Why did you go on Fox News?

Mr. Astorino: I’d go on anywhere. I’ve been on NPR, in the Wall Street Journal. I agree they kind of hyped that, but if I was on MSNBC, they’d hype that as well. I’ve spoken about this extensively.

Most people understand the national Democratic Party and the national Republican Party are very different than your local candidates that affect a lot about your own neighborhoods. I think he’s trying to make it a big issue, but people are smarter than that.


Record-Review: Why do you omit a party label on your campaign literature?

Mr. Astorino: I didn’t put a label because on both sides people have preconceived notions and I want them to read what it is ... and for me to stand on my own two feet as far as my record is. People know I’m a Republican. I’ve been in office for four years.


Record-Review: What do you say when he calls you “tea party in sheep’s clothing?”

Mr. Astorino: He’s called me a tea party extremist, “Disastorino,” that’s his response. I know he doesn’t like the fact that we’re telling people about his public record. That’s fair game. Unlike this stuff that he’s doing, that saying I’m “responsible for the death of young children.”


Record-Review: You’re referring to his comments on the return of gun shows to the Westchester County Center after a 10-year ban?

Mr. Astorino: The gun show came back under strict guidelines. Every sale would have a national background check, the FBI, ATF, county police are inside and out the whole time. To my knowledge there has not been one incident. I’m not in favor of military-style assault weapons; he can continue to say what he wants. Just like Gov. Cuomo permits gun shows on state property. Everyone is licensed. Everyone has a background check. It’s the top-grossing event for the county. I think it’s a nonissue.

Mr. Bramson: The values Rob and I apply to public life are quite different. I happen to be a strong supporter of a woman’s right to choose; Mr. Astorino happens to be an opponent of the woman’s right to choose. He vetoed clinic-access legislation that would have protected women from harassment and bullying when they accessed medical care. I’m in favor of commonsense gun-safety regulations, like bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips; Mr. Astorino opposed those measures and brought gun shows back to the county center after a 10-year ban. I support marriage equality measures; I was proud New York State took the lead in seeing that we all are treated equally. Mr. Astorino opposes those. Each of those issues has a nexus in terms of regional and local policymaking. They speak to the values we apply to public life and they speak to the advocacy we offer to the people we represent.


Record-Review: What do you see as the primary issues of interest to people in northern Westchester specifically?

Mr. Astorino: I think some are universal. First, to hold the line on county property taxes. Certainly there are environmental concerns here that are more prevalent than they would be down county. I think we’ve done a great job with the environmental issues; we’ve worked with the East of Hudson funds with the 10 watershed towns, we’ve unleashed the money that was frozen and given it to the communities faster so they can get these projects down. We’ve held the line with the federal government demand that we use that watershed property for housing, which would put tremendous strain on water and sewage.

Mr. Bramson: I may be a new face to you, but this is not a new place to me. I have a brother in Katonah and two other brothers in Briarcliff. As a family we span southern and northern Westchester. There are issues that are distinct to northern Westchester and issues that are common to all of Westchester County. The importance of protecting the watershed is vital to this part of Westchester; the pastoral character is what makes this appealing to so many residents and is to be cherished and preserved. The planning principles I listed earlier, to ensure that growth is facilitated and does so in places that do the most good and growth is discouraged in areas that could gobble up open space, that kind of regional approach is beneficial to both southern and northern Westchester. I do recognize that each community has its own character and its own perspective. It’s the job of the county executive to respect those individual views and priorities even as we advance interests that benefit all of us a whole.


Record-Review: Mr. Astorino, do you see yourself as a front-runner or an underdog in this race?

Mr. Astorino: I personally always run like I’m 25 points down. I will work early in the morning until late at night, not taking anything for granted. I’m confident we will win, but I’m not going to let up on the gas until 9 p.m. on election night.


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

 

SCOTT MULLIN PHOTOs

County Executive Candidates Rob Astorino and Noam Bramson