Paul Feiner is the Greenburgh Town Supervisor and a former board member of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.
In the early 1960s Connecticut abolished county government. Over 10 years ago the State of Massachusetts authorized county governments to cease existence—and most did. The State of Rhode Island also manages to function without a county government. Each of these states has a distinction Westchester County residents would envy: They are not among the highest taxed localities in America.
Westchester is. Do you know anyone in Connecticut, Massachusetts or Rhode Island who is petitioning the state government to create a county government? The answer is most likely no, they are functioning nicely without this unnecessary layer.
According to the current Westchester County website, about two-thirds of the Westchester County budget consists of state and federal mandates, which the county must fund and has no control over. The website states: "The state shifts a significant part of the cost of other programs, notably Medicaid, to the counties to fund. The County Board controls how less than one-third of the county budget, considered discretionary or non-mandated, is spent." If the county government has no control over most of their budget—why do we need an extra layer of government—a government that most people do not identify with? New York State has more layers of government than any state in the United States—we need to eliminate some of these layers if government is going to be able to sustain itself in the future.
In these difficult economic times, when most government entities are struggling with their budgets, the question that should be on the minds of most officials is: How can we maintain the level of services people expect and deserve at less cost to the taxpayers?
Since the early 1990s, when I was a member of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, I have suggested the elimination of county government. An alternative approach could be merging Westchester County government with surrounding counties and creating a larger and less costly regional government. Another option would be for the state to assume control of the Social Services budget, which consists mainly of mandates. That alternative would result in a reduction of about 40 percent of the county budget.
Abolishing county government would not mean that the employees who provide Westchester with basic services would lose their jobs. Mandated programs would be administered by the state. The duplication of administration that exists in state and county governments would be eliminated. Why, for instance, have a state social services commissioner and a county social services commissioner when the state mandates the programs run by the county Social Services Department? If the state requires a service to be performed, shouldn't they run the program? The county currently has discretion over some of its budget. Police and emergency services, parks, transportation, programs for the elderly, youth, women and children, and consumer affairs are not mandated. Many of these services, however, could be assumed by either the state or local governments. Local governments could easily maintain the parks if the state would provide maintenance funds. There is currently a state and county consumer affairs office—all the responsibilities could be handled by the state. Some localities add to the duplication with local consumer affairs offices, paid for with tax dollars.
During the 2011 budget hearings I spoke out against County Executive Astorino's proposed cuts for mental health, bus routes, child care services. I believe that these programs are important and feel that the emphasis should be on eliminating duplication, administrative costs. If we eliminate layers of government or merge the county with other county governments--we will be able to cut costs and maintain more services: save money with more sharing of services. The taxpayers will get a greater return for their tax dollars. We will save money without the loss of services and decrease duplication of services.