After Astorino was elected, President Obama’s HUD required the county government to submit a document identifying potential “impediments” to the affordable-housing project, and suggesting actions to overcome them. HUD has repeatedly rejected the county’s analysis, despite the fact that the settlement-mandated construction of units is ahead of schedule and compliant with Westchester’s agreed-upon settlement.
On May 13, 2011, HUD sent another letter to the county government essentially admitting as much, insisting that Westchester go “beyond the four corners of the settlement” in a few ways. Obama’s HUD seemed to be unhappy for two reasons: not enough spending, and not enough government control. First, HUD insisted that more than 50 percent of all homes constructed have three bedrooms, which would more than double the county’s costs from $51.6 million to about $100 million, a price unreasonable for a county with strained finances. Secondly, HUD has requested that the county sue towns to dismantle their zoning laws on, among other things, multifamily housing, despite the fact that the settlement doesn’t require it, and towns have been able to cooperate in the housing settlement without demolishing their own local laws.
Astorino has insisted that the county will abide by the terms of the original federal settlement, and emphatically rejected HUD’s demands as unaffordable outlays and troubling overreach in response to a non-existent problem. Allocating all of the new housing to members of minority groups would increase Westchester’s minority population by just 5 percent, while it naturally increased 56 percent from 2000 to 2010, and the county remains ahead of schedule on financing and constructing the housing units. Astorino explained local residents’ dismay with what federal authorities “have called . . . their grand experiment” and their issuance of an “integration order.” (Westchester is the fourth most diverse county in the state — tied with New York County, also known as Manhattan.) Astorino has stood fast, however, and told me the national controversy has not distracted him from his county reforms, which the county government desperately needed.
One almost cannot overstate the tax burden imposed on Westchester residents. Residents of Fairfield, a similarly affluent county next door in Connecticut, pay half as much property taxes as residents of Westchester. Astorino notes, “Ninety-nine out of 100 times, when you talk to someone in this county, whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, it is ‘Stop this tax madness, now.’”
Westchester has a substantial population of senior citizens, and the combination of once rapidly rising property values and a constantly increasing tax levy has made the situation untenable for many. Astorino explained a truly shocking trend: Many Westchester senior citizens now find themselves paying more money in annual property taxes than they did on their home mortgages, and many are exchanging their New York houses for Florida condos as a result.
Property taxes, for better or worse, aren’t like income taxes, whose incentive effects are not always so tangible. When property taxes reach an unsustainable level, citizens are forced to sell their homes and communities are visibly altered. Moreover, property taxes fall upon residents regardless of their current income. No good comes of high taxes, of course, but there is a silver lining to Westchester’s property-tax rates: By showing citizens the real cost of their government, they have forced liberals and conservatives alike to address government waste.
Despite constantly rising outlays, Astorino has done his best to maintain or reduce Westchester’s tax levy, a marked difference from the constant inflation seen under Democratic executives. (In his first full-year budget, he reduced the total levy by 2 percent, and will hold it steady in his 2012 budget.)
Much of New York’s county-level bloat is due to the number of services, including Medicaid, that New York State provides through county governments. But the government is essentially redundant in other respects, as indicated by a couple of the budget reforms he highlights.