While incumbent Catherine Parker, running on the Democratic ticket, and Republican challenger Susan Watson live across town from one another in Rye, in our conversations with the candidates we didn’t find much political common ground.
By Robin Jovanovich and Tom McDermott
While incumbent Catherine Parker, running on the Democratic ticket, and Republican challenger Susan Watson live across town from one another in Rye, in our conversations with the candidates we didn’t find much political common ground. But, no matter which smart, savvy woman is elected on November 3, we know she will be a strong advocate for residents of District 7, and represent Rye especially well.
Watson is an Executive Search Associate at Spencer Stuart, a global executive search firm. Parker owns an eponymous travel and leisure store in downtown Rye. Whereas Parker has served as a Rye City Councilwoman and has one term as a Legislator under her belt, Watson is running for political office for the first time. “My interest in running for office grew out of my participation in the Cato Institute,” Watson told the paper in an interview last week. “When Elliot Engel ran for reelection last time, I was upset because he ran unopposed. Democracy is about choice.”
With Westchester the highest taxed county in the country, one of the rare instances in which being number one isn’t an enviable position, we asked the candidates if keeping County taxes flat, while maintaining core services and improving infrastructure, is possible and practical.
Parker says her six years on the City Council taught her the importance of fiscal responsibility. “At the beginning of the Recession, every department head — at the County level, the municipal level — was asked to slim down their budget. Everyone in the County was on the same page. The County workforce was cut by ten percent… but the County Executive has been borrowing from operations to keep taxes flat. The amount of debt service is growing and we’ll have to pay down the road.” She said with pension and health care costs escalating, the County may need to raise taxes “a little and under the tax cap.”
For Watson, who has 30 years of experience in finance — E.F. Hutton, Morgan Stanley, investor relations at Gannett — and “can tear apart a budget as fast as anybody,” taxes are the biggest issue on District 7 voters’ minds. “Residents in this District pay 20 percent of the total County taxes, and they are upset about the rising costs. I am reminded of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ the television series where everything was dark, no hope, beaten down by taxes and the inability to meet infrastructure needs. Growth is the answer.”
To promote growth, Watson says she would work to ensure less government and less regulation. “One of the reasons this lousy economy persists in Westchester is uncertainty, which dissuades people from growing their businesses. It’s easier to drive people away than attract them. And as government grows, citizens take less responsibility.”
In the search for greater savings as a way to stem rising taxes, Parker says she looks for long-term solutions. “The County’s annual bills for electricity are $30 million. They use no solar power. There are opportunities for enormous savings — as much as 20 percent — which I am pushing for as chair of the BOL Environment and Energy Committee.” She said the BOL has set an agenda for cleaner air and water. One of Parker’s proposals is to install power lines for future vehicle power stations in the four County parking lots scheduled to be paved.
On that point, Watson is voluble. “The County has a limited number of dollars to spend with one-third of budget going to Medicaid. We need to pick our projects carefully. While I am in favor of saving energy and cutting costs wherever possible, I think we can find savings that will benefit more than Tesla owners.”
The County, noted Watson, has a population of fewer than one million people yet pays $100 million in benefit costs. “Ninety percent of County government employees pay nothing towards their health care. If you don’t pay for something, you don’t value it.” She continued, “Westchester maintains five public golf courses. Golf is a privilege, not a right. We need to raise the user fees or consider selling one or more to a private group. We should focus our efforts on what we need to do, what our role is — provide public safety and services, and maintain infrastructure.” Watson says that if there are savings to be had, she will find them. “My biggest selling feature is my financial acumen.”
Parker points with pride to her work fine-tuning the Playland agreement with the addition of a Memo of Understanding that addressed the park’s capital needs and ensured no field house was in our future. “It’s a template for the advisory board made up of Save the Sound, Friends of Edith Read, and other local organizations.”
The candidates did agree that immediate action is required regarding the growing deer population. Parker chastised the City of Rye for not yet filling out the paperwork the County requires in order to come in, as planned, and cull the population. “Rye only has until October 15 to sign the documents. The County made a lengthy presentation at a City Council meeting earlier this year in which it laid out the various culling programs and their costs. It’s in the hands of the City.”
With five union contracts coming up for the County, Parker remarked that while her opponent “is parroting an appealing slogan — no new taxes — that’s political naiveté. She doesn’t understand what the County does. Elected officials need a backbone.” Parker went on to criticize County Executive Rob Astorino for leaving the CSEA’s offer on the table. “It was a good place to start. How do we get anywhere on contracts if we don’t proceed on a give-and-take basis? I see this Administration as entrenched.”
Watson counters that while being an insider has its advantages — “my opponent has more details at her fingertips — a lot of the issues aren’t about politics, they’re pocketbook. I may be a breath of fresh air or a bull in a china shop.”
Parker said that she is optimistic about the path going forward. “Westchester is an attractive product. We need to encourage transit-oriented development for millennials and make our downtowns vibrant. The successful communities will be those that look at the bigger picture.”
The two candidates will be at the League of Women Voters Forum at Rye Middle School October 14 at 7:30 p.m. Bring your questions.