Branda Calls Latimer's Abuse of Coronavirus Relief Money 'Shameful'
Journal News Tax Watch columnist David McKay Wilson reported today on George Latimer's use of CARES Act (stimulus) money to balance his budget while maintaining 500 vacant jobs that we still need to pay for (subscription required):
Westchester County Executive George Latimer’s $2 billion budget plan, which includes a $1 million property-tax cut to fulfill his 2019 pledge, is balanced by an $88-million one-shot payment from the county’s reserve fund.
The budget also includes funding for an estimated 340 jobs that the county has no intention of filling, including scores of budget lines vacated when 226 county employees took a voluntary buy-out offer this spring.
On Tuesday, when Latimer presented his 2021 budget to the press, he made a point to say that he was not using a one-shot (a non-recurring source of revenue) to balance his budget. In his first budget, Latimer threatened to sell a county park's parking lot to the Local Development Corporation (a Westchester government agency) to close a $22 million gap.
At Tuesday’s budget announcement, Latimer wanted to assure the public that he wasn’t using one-shot revenues to balance his budget, as he did a year ago, when he included the sale of the parking lots at Westchester County Center to the Westchester County Local Development Corp. to plug a $22 million hole in his 2020 budget.
The deal never went through, but the phantom revenues remained, with a 1 percentage point hike in sales tax saving the day.
“There are no games, the way we are looking at one-shots,” he said. “We aren’t balancing the budget because we are selling a piece of land. We’re not balancing this budget because we have a one-time revenue that won’t repeat itself.”
As Wilson points out, what Latimer is doing is so much worse than selling a piece of land to himself just to create a paper revenue source. He sat on $167 million of Coronavirus Relief money--money meant to help us now--so that he can balance next year's budget. Wilson gave me a chance to respond:
Yet Latimer proceeded to detail how he was using the savings incurred by the county from the one-time infusion of $163 million from the federal government from the Coronavirus Relief Fund through the CARES Act to balance his budget and cut taxes by $1 million.
By years end, Latimer expects his 2020 budget to have a surplus of $88 million, due to the federal COVID funding. That surplus will go to the county’s reserve fund and then be transferred into the general fund to balance the 2021 spending plan.
“This is the definition of a one-shot: Latimer is funding next year's budget on money that does not exist in 2022,” he said. “And, it is so much worse than selling a parking lot to his LDC for a paper profit. Latimer is paying for 500 empty county jobs with $88 million that is supposed to be used to protect our health and safety and our jobs this year during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's shameful.”
Wilson also gave me a change to comment on the county's 500 vacant jobs. These are jobs that Latimer's budget keeps on the books, which means we still pay taxes to cover the salary, benefits, and pension for jobs that don't actually exist. In fact, 226 of the 500 vacant jobs were created by Latimer's early retirement incentive in July, meaning we paid at least $4.5 million extra to create these vacancies but we don't benefit from any savings:
Branda, a former aide to Astorino, questioned the prudence of Latimer’s buyout gambit when he’s not delivering tax savings to taxpayers who paid for the buyouts and will still be billed for those positions in the 2021 budget, even if they are not filled.
He noted that public employee unions helped fund Latimer's political campaign.
“Why did the county pay 226 former employees at least $4.5 million as an incentive to retire if taxpayers are not going to see any future savings by the elimination of these positions?” he said. “By not following through on his promise to taxpayers, George Latimer has wasted our tax money and shown that his loyalties lie with the public employee unions."
As he always does, Latimer debates the issue by creating a false, extreme alternative. Last week, when he was considering a property tax hike the alternative was to close county parks--that was never going to happen. When it comes to using our Coronavirus Relief money to close the budget, Latimer says:
“What’s my alternative?” said Latimer in a text message. “BTW, anytime you want to advocate for a 15% tax increase or 200 layoffs as a better strategy, be my guest and do it publicly.”
Due to the timing, I did not get a chance to respond to Latimer's alternative before Wilson's deadline. But he's my "better strategy," for the public:
- Remove the 500 vacant jobs from the budget, saving at least $75 million
- Put our Coronavirus Relief money to work for us, and do it now.
- Roll back Latimer's executive staff's $50,000 raises
- Freeze property taxes and hiring for 2021
- If the economy recovers, use 2021's Sales Tax surplus for a dollar-to-dollar property tax cut