By Tom McDermott and Robin Jovanovich
George Latimer is in his second and final term as Westchester County Executive, but he is sanguine that he can accomplish a lot more in the next few years.
In an hour-long interview in the County Administration Building this week, he shared facts and figures on everything from revenue to crime; the good news is that the former is going up and the latter down.
“In my first year in office, I saw there were unmet needs, but I was determined to balance the budget and stay within the tax cap,” he began. “My mission was not to raise property taxes.”
His solution was to increase the sales tax but at the same time freeze property taxes for two years. A share of the sales tax is returned to the municipalities — the City of Rye receives 20 percent and the Rye City School District 10 percent. “Unlike property taxes, Latimer said, “sales tax is a consumption tax. What you pay is in your control.”
Latimer is happy to report that Rye City residents’ County taxes went down 4 percent in 2020 and 3 percent in 2021 and may go down 8 percent in 2022.
And he’s proud of the capital improvements he pushed for at Playland. “My predecessor never made any investments in the amusement park. Under my watch, we’ve spent $125 on capital projects.” He noted that the Playland Pool, which is currently being reconstructed, will be a place where parents can relax with their children. The Sprain Brook Pool is the future home of competitive meets.
He said the County would be open to helping improve adjacent Rye Town Park, but he’d first need a long-range plan from their commission. “If Rye Town Park leadership came to the County, we would be open to help with operations and capital,” Latimer offered.
Latimer is happy to come to the table when a community needs the County’s help, and he looks forward to receiving a firmed-up flood mitigation plan from the City of Rye that specifies what the City is prepared to do, and the plan has to be effective. “The County is prepared to be a partner, but we can’t be one until we are presented with a plan to review.”
He noted that after the devastating floods in 2007, Mamaroneck received federal funds for the cleanup, but they needed an additional $10 million. “So, the County adjusted its budget and committed the funds.”
On the other hand, Theodore Fremd Avenue in Rye, which was badly damaged in those same floods, was in the County budget for a decade before it was repaired. Latimer explained: “The County has to prioritize projects in order to keep taxes down, and the project required a great deal of engineering work by many subcontractors.”
Rye residents will be heartened to learn that repair of Midland Avenue, also a county road, is on the horizon now that the Last Mile project is near completion.
For those who wonder why we need County government — “Fairfield County residents don’t have county government” — Latimer has a ready answer. “The County is a big, local government which oversees those functions that are better accomplished regionally. The state and federal government mandate social services, which is our biggest department; the prison system is our second biggest. We also run transportation and sewage treatment. We look to do what’s practical.”
This year, Latimer has turned his focus to projects both big and small, from the restoration of the County Center, which hasn’t been remodeled in 40 years, to the repair of the County-owned parking lot next to Playland Market and On the Way Café.
We turned the conversation to what can be done at the County Airport — and his response was quick and honest: “Not enough. The FAA controls the skies and local elected officials can only control quality of life up to a certain point. We did reduce commercial travel at one time, but private-corporate aviation and fixed-base operations have continued to grow. We have improved how we respond to complaints about the airport. If there is serious talk of expanding the airport, that will need a lengthy community discussion.”