Dan Branda Rebuts 2020 State of the County

3 years ago • 13 minute read

Golfing in a Storm: Latimer Lacks Vision for the Future

Dan Branda, the Republican candidate for Westchester County Executive in 2021, issued the following rebuttal to County Executive George Latimer’s 2020 State of the County:

Westchester County Executive George Latimer’s State of the County Address was emblematic of his administration’s failings: It was six months late and completely lacking any vision for the future.

Thursday night, the residents of Westchester who tuned in looking for an answer or an explanation to the many problems facing this county were left unsatisfied. Latimer dedicated a portion of his speech defending his decision in March to open the county golf courses at a time when we couldn’t visit our loved ones in nursing homes; when we couldn’t say goodbye in hospitals or at funerals; when a new father, like myself, was not allowed to support his wife and newborn son in the hospital. This was a time when 3,000 homeless, doubled-up children and families were abandoned for months by the county despite calls for help.

But at the State of the County, while golfing in a storm—to use Latimer’s metaphor for COVID—was defended, the topics left unaddressed were many:

  • County Finances. Despite his promise to voters that he will improve the county’s finances and increase the fund balance, and despite the help of a one percent sales tax increase, George Latimer has increased property taxes, increased spending by 15 percent, handed out exorbitant pay raises to his staff, tripled the county’s post-employment debt obligation (which is now double the county’s annual budget), and spent half of the county’s fund balance—depleting our taxpayer savings account to a dangerous level (2 percent of spending) while burdening us with unsustainable operating debt. Now we’re facing the worst economic recession in our lifetime, uncertainty about the future economic impact of the COVID pandemic, a significant reduction in county capital spending, and a budget gap that may be as high as $250 million (by Latimer’s own accounting). On Thursday, Latimer failed to address the financial health of our county.
  • Affordable Housing Settlement. In the closing days of President Obama’s administration, Westchester County met its obligations under the 2009 Affordable Housing Settlement and the federal government appointed a new Housing Monitor, Judge Stephen C. Robinson, to write the final report. In the four years since, Judge Robinson has failed to perform his contractual duties—attempting to wait out the clock on the Trump Administration—while County Executive Latimer has refused to demand closure on behalf of Westchester’s residents. Now with a Presidential election just days away, Robinson and Latimer are threatening to once again overreach the terms of the settlement by targeting local zoning control in seven communities, mostly along political party lines: Mount Pleasant, Yorktown, Harrison, Briarcliff Manor, Pelham, Pelham Manor, and Buchanan. Westchester has a right to demand Judge Robinson’s removal for dereliction of duty and a dismissal of the case. On Thursday, Latimer failed to address the future of the Affordable Housing settlement.
  • Police Reform. On Memorial Day 2020, George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers sparked a national outcry for reform. In response, the County Executive announced a Police Reform Task Force on June 1st that shockingly lacked substantial, diverse representation of all minorities, including people of color outside of the black community.At the State of the County, five months after Floyd’s death, Latimer failed to put his name on any police reform proposals. In June, he had promised a report within 30 days; it was never issued. Instead, Latimer pushed back his police reform report to December and limited its sole focus to the police academy. And here in Westchester, at the state of the county, Latimer has failed to acknowledge the pain and unanswered questions over Kamal Flowers’s shooting; to commemorate the still-open wounds from D.J. Henry’s death ten years ago; or at the very least, to affirm at the State of the County that black lives matter.
  • Ethics Reform. In September, Latimer and Legislator Kitley Covill announced a complete overhaul of the County’s Ethics Law. To their credit, this new law will make some good changes for the benefit of residents. However, we deserve an explanation from Latimer on many components of this new law, including:
    • Why elected officials are not required to recuse themselves if that recusal would prevent legislative approval on a bill?
    • Why we need to reduce the number of Board members and lengthen their terms, which gives the majority party undue influence in a system that requires one person (Latimer) to make all appointments?
    • Why the Board of Ethics needs to be removed entirely from the County Charter under this new proposal?
    On Thursday, Latimer failed to address his comprehensive ethics proposal.
  • Playland. For more than a decade, the county’s operation of Playland has created a multi-million dollar hole in the budget and a liability for taxpayers. Under the previous administration, County Executive Rob Astorino and the Westchester Board of Legislators reached a bi-partisan agreement with Standard Amusements to privately operate and improve the park, turning a liability into an asset for taxpayers. In the three years since, George Latimer has spent more than $5 million to break this bi-partisan contract while failing to offer an alternative plan. On Thursday, Latimer failed to address the future of Playland.
  • Storm Hardening. Twice over the last three years, storms have left hundreds of thousands of Westchester residents without power for too long. These blackouts have threatened our livelihoods and, in some cases, our lives. Failed storm responses by our utilities, along with random power outages on sunny days, has become a fact of life for Westchester because the utility companies have neglected to provide resilient and reliable power to our homes and businesses. And yet, energy rates and taxes have continued to climb. Latimer failed to effectively communicate with residents immediately after the storm, has repeatedly failed to hold utilities accountable and has no plan to improve our quality of life when it comes to our power grid. On Thursday, Latimer failed to hold our utility companies accountable.

What we did receive from George Latimer, instead, was an assurance that Westchester residents are ‘fierce.’ We are not Beyoncé.

Westchester residents, like the rest of the country, are weary in the midst of COVID—we have lost jobs, shuttered businesses and buried loved ones. We are divided in the midst of political upheaval—many of us do not know what to expect after November 3rd. We are broke—we are struggling after a prolonged economic shutdown while living in the county with America’s highest tax burden, where the prospect of a sufficient life’s savings has been dimmed for years. And, we are deserving—of promise for our future.

An alternative vision for the future of Westchester County embraces our ability to rise above the challenges we face. In Westchester over the next five years, we can:

  • Double the county’s sponsorship of Westchester Community College, which will restore the original mission of our community college by effectively cutting student tuition in half (based on current enrollments). Additionally, to help Community College graduates continue their education, we can charter the creation of a non-profit scholarship fund to help students matriculate to undergraduate and graduate programs at Westchester’s many private colleges.
  • Create a new division in Public Safety committed to Public Advocacy, with a citizen Deputy Commissioner appointed by the County Executive and approved by the Board of Legislators who will facilitate town hall meetings, advisory boards, and community policing initiatives while coordinating with local police departments to enable unified policing policies throughout Westchester. We can pay for this initiative by rolling back Latimer’s executive pay raises—which increased payroll in the County Executive’s Office by 35 percent (without increasing staff).When we talk with people of color, it will include advocates for the Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, Arab and Asian communities. We will talk with advocates for the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and all religious communities, the LGBTQIA community, and all differently-abled people, whether physical, mental, or emotional.The Public Advocacy Division will be a first step. Working with Police Unions and representatives of Westchester’s many communities, we can do the hard work to enable trust between the police in Westchester and those they protect and serve.
  • Vigorously defend our communities’ constitutional right to determine their own zoning, and demand enforcement of our rights under the 2009 affordable housing settlement, while working with citizens and non-profits to advocate for and implement policies that ensure Westchester becomes more affordable—offering a place to live, work, raise a family, and retire to everyone who wants to come here. We can embrace two complex, superficially conflicting ideas at the same time.We can also work hard to reduce the county property tax levy to lessen the tax barrier to home ownership in this county.
  • Continue to reform Westchester’s ethics law. We can limit all Board of Ethics members to one term so we ensure no member’s judgment is beholden to an appointment for a second term. We can allow the District Attorney and the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Board of Legislators to each have an appointment, limiting the County Executive’s influence.We can make the recusal requirement absolute, so greyness cannot be a defense to self-dealing.And, we can allow the Board to review campaign finances and take appropriate actions, so that if a Majority Leader fails to submit her legally required Campaign Disclosure forms for two years or a County Executive with a suspended car registration and a history of financial mismanagement uses nearly $3,000 in campaign money to rent a car for personal use or pay a Collection Bureau nearly $1,000, the residents of Westchester can request an inquiry and seek resolution.
  • And, we can invest significantly in Capital projects to support thousands of new full-time jobs while our county recovers from the recession. We can establish Asset Maintenance Funds at 3 percent and 2.5 percent of the value of our buildings and infrastructure (respectively) so that we have dedicated money to maintain our buildings and parking lots. These funds can strealine the planning and legislative processes so we get the necessary work done.With the extra time and energy no longer dedicated to routine maintenance, we can seek out ambitious projects. Working with the utility companies, we can bury the power and phone lines along county roads to harden our power grid, making Westchester more resilient to storms. And, we can work with our local and state partners in government to do the same throughout Westchester.

One hundred years ago, Robert Frost wrote of a traveler who decided to walk a familiar path only to long for the possibilities of “The Road Not Taken.” He yearned to one day say:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

George Latimer says we’re on a path. I say that like Frost’s traveler, we are at a crossroads in our country and in our county. We can embrace the status quo, and aspire toward mediocrity. We can put up fences to keep us on our path.

Or we can embrace ambition, inclusivity, and opportunity. We can tear down walls and build new roads.

I love living in Westchester. Like all of you, this is where my wife and I want to raise our family and where we want to retire. I don’t want us to be Frost’s traveler, regretting our embrace of the familiar. I choose to build new roads.