Westchester’s twelve county homeless shelters were operating well under capacity, thanks to notably successful efforts in relocating homeless citizens to permanent housing. In fact, two shelters were running only about 50 percent full on the average night — but costing the county as if they were filled by homeless every night. Sensibly, Astorino decided to close these two shelters, saving a significant amount of money while leaving the system with plenty of remaining capacity. He noted that, because it involved layoffs, even such an obvious fix was lambasted: “The narrative from the other side was, we’re throwing homeless people out in the street.”
Another of Astorino’s reforms was similarly demonized. The county government was administering Section 8 housing vouchers on behalf of the state, losing about $700,000 a year over and above state reimbursements, when they could have contracted it to the state. Seeing an opportunity, Astorino cancelled the contract — state employees now provide the same Section 8 services at no loss to the county, and work in the same county office building, for which the state pays the county $237,000 a year in rent. But even this seemingly obvious solution, which saves the county almost $1 million a year, was heavily opposed. Siding with the public-sector union involved, the Democratic county legislature insisted unsuccessfully that the government rehire the county workers for what Astorino calls “no-show jobs,” since the state now provided the service.
Astorino’s profile has not diminished — after unveiling his 2012 county budget in November, he was featured
on Fox Business Network to explain why union members’ refusal to contribute to their own health-care costs forced 210 layoffs in his 2012 county budget. His combination of personal appeal and policy knowledge seem to suggest great political potential, but when I prompted him about future ambitions, he smiled and demurred, emphasizing his long-term commitment to reform in Westchester. In fact, he appreciates the challenge and opportunity Westchester represents, noting that “there’s a lot at stake, there are a lot of smart people in this county, and they understand what we’re doing.”
He attributes his vigorous approach to government reform to his concern for the problems of his home county, and to his wider beliefs about the proper function of government: “The county is tangled with the state,” but Westchester, as a large county, can be “a model, a laboratory for the rest of the state and the federal government. If we can do it in Westchester, it can be done elsewhere.”
Indeed, sentiment in the county about Astorino’s performance, despite controversy and austerity, seems to be quite positive: The most obvious vindication of Westchester’s new government was November’s county-legislature election. In three excruciatingly close races, the Republicans managed to pick up two seats, breaking the veto-overriding Democratic supermajority and securing both a political mandate and a practical way forward for reform.
Rob Astorino’s success in Westchester County is due in no small part to unique factors: his charisma and command of the issues, and taxpayers who have emphatically rejected onerous taxes. But as counties and municipalities across America must confront worsening fiscal situations, Astorino has shown that successes are possible anywhere, even Westchester, with smart reforms and political will. Astorino, agonistes no longer, has crusaded for small government, and won more converts than anyone would have expected.
— Patrick Brennan is the 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow at National Review.