Dissenting legislators cite concerns with debt, oversight
By Holly Toal
The Putnam County Legislature approved $153 million in spending for 2017 on a 7 to 2 vote, with Dini LoBue (R-Mahopac Falls) and Kevin Wright (R-Carmel) voting no.
The spending plan comes in below the state-mandated property tax cap of 1 percent and will increase taxes about $10 per homeowner, according to the county executive’s office.
Before the Oct. 27 vote, Wright cited his concerns about overall spending and, in particular, debt spending, as reasons he could not support the budget. According to the New York State Comptroller’s Office, Putnam County has $68.4 million in debit, or about $686 for each resident, while Dutchess County has $118 million, or about $400 per person.
The county’s debt-per-capita basis “to me is just wrong,” he said. “I recognize there are others [counties] in the mid Hudson Valley that are in worse shape, but we ought not compare ourselves to the worst and feel good. We should look to the best if we’re going to look around for examples and say, ‘Why not?’ ”
Wright added that in these “fragile economic times,” he’s concerned that the county does not have its eye on the long-term, “not just for the young and old who cannot afford to live in our county, but the ever-growing middle that appears to be moving away from Putnam.”
LoBue echoed those sentiments, saying the Legislature needs to have better checks and balances in place, and greater oversight.
“To be satisfied with just staying underneath the cap is not enough,” she said.
LoBue also accused the administration of having “questionable priorities,” including excessive spending associated with Tilly Foster Farm and the Putnam County Golf Course that she sees as unnecessary.
“The spending on things that I believe not to be priority, the patronage jobs that exist in this budget, the legacy costs attached with the pensions,” she said are reasons she could not support the budget.
“There’s a disconnect between this county government and the people it serves,” LoBue said. “There are people that are really suffering and we have a high rate of foreclosures, and for the people of this administration to be using those foreclosures as a revenue stream, what does that say about this county?”
Carl Albano (R-Mahopac) disagreed.
“This is a sound budget,” he said. “These are very difficult times, but we’re paying attention to details.”
He added that while no one likes to see foreclosures happening, when taxes aren’t paid, the rest of the residents have to pick up the slack, so the best way to provide relieve to taxpayers is to sell those properties.
Roger Gross (R-Brewster) said that considering the vast services the county is required to provide – including legal aid, Medicaid, health initiatives and programs, pensions and other unfunded mandates – the county has sound financial footing.
“According to our accountants we’re in good shape bond-wise, and we’re in good shape financially,” he said. “There are some things in the budget I’m not happy with, there’s some fluff in there, there’s some positions that could easily be eliminated… but we did cut and control some things tonight.”
During a public hearing on the budget the day before, Lithgow Osborne of Garrison criticized the debut of the proposed county budget. “The county executive needs to separate the dog-and-pony show at the golf course with the presentation of the budget,” he said, referring to the Oct. 6 business expo and budget reveal.
Lynne Eckardt, a resident of Southeast who also sits on the town board, also criticized the process by which the budget was presented, and the opportunity for public input. She questioned how the Legislature could have enough time to seriously consider public comment when a public hearing was held the day before the vote.
“There needs to be a lot more transparency with this Legislature,” she said. “This process hasn’t been as open as it should be… I really think this board can do a lot better.”
Gross responded that the county allows for plenty of public participation during the several committee meetings each month.
“The committee meetings are totally transparent, wild-and-woolly at some points,” he said. “Anyone can get up and go after any particular item… They go on sometimes for three-and-a-half and four hours.”
He added that if residents cannot make a meeting, they can still contact the Legislature for clarification on any issues.
Wright said the Legislature can still improve by allowing public comment before voting on issues at the formal monthly meeting, and allowing more time between a public hearing and a vote.
“Let’s give the citizens credit for the ability from time to time to enlighten us in a way that is helpful, but may require deliberative thinking and careful analysis,” he said.