Thingish Things

Westchester’s Union Lackeys

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Mar• 17•11

I typically don’t inject client issues onto this page — my opinions and those of my clients sometimes differ markedly — but a situation brewing in Westchester County, NY merits mention. It is too perfectly illustrative of the union grip on the Democratic Party to go unreported.

For those of you who don’t know, Westchester, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has had the highest property taxes in America three years running. The suburb immediately north of New York City sports property taxes that can range for a quarter or half acre from, say, $12,000 to around $50,000, give or take some and depending on the town.

It’s a real problem. Westchester is famous for being a wealthy county, but there are plenty of poor and middle class people among its 900,000-plus residents. Seniors have had to sell homes it took years to pay off because they couldn’t afford the property taxes. Others have had to return to work or indefinitely postpone retirement. Thousands of families have moved out of the county, and thousands more have been unable to move in. Middle class residents have had to cut back in all areas of their lives to pay the taxes. That sweet 16 party? Sorry, baby, no-can-do. That vacation? Maybe next year. Summer camp? How about playing with those toys in the attic?   Low-income residents have seen rents rise and jobs vanish.

It came as no surprise to some then  — but to the apparent amazement of others — that Republican Rob Astorino, whom I advised in his race, trounced incumbent County Executive Andy Spano in 2009. Westchester is a deep blue county, and the entrenched Democrat should have been a shoe-in for re-election.

But Astorino ran on a simple and honest message — the same one he ran and lost on four years earlier — Westchester needs to address the tax madness before anything else. It needs to streamline its government in smart ways to save money, even if that means making tough calls.  He beat Mr. Spano by 16 points.

Fast forward to County Executive Astorino’s first budget.  Among the many things he did to reduce spending and address a mammoth inherited budget deficit, Astorino severed a contract with New York State to administer federal Section 8 housing vouchers (they are like food stamps for housing.)

It was a no-brainer. This was an optional contract. In fact,  Westchester was one of only four of New York’s 62 counties administering Section 8, and it was losing $1 million per year in doing it. Not renewing the contract simply meant that New York State would administer it instead — paying the County $22,000 a month to rent space in the process — with no diminishment of services to those helped by the program.

A no brainer. Right? The county gains $22,000 per-month instead of losing a million bucks a year with no loss of services.

If you guessed no-brainer, you’d be wrong. Nothing is that simple in government.

Here’s where it gets interesting — and complicated — so I ask you to bear with me.

In severing this money-losing contract, 38 union jobs were eliminated. In this case Civil Service Employee Association (CSEA) jobs. The CSEA is a 265,000-member political powerhouse with deep, deep pockets. It contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to incumbent Democrats every election cycle.

The CSEA predictably went into an uproar — never mind that 38 other workers were presumably hired to administer the program for the state —
and publicly attacked Astorino, as is their right, one can even argue their obligation as a public employee union.

All good so far.

But then the Democratic-led County Board of Legislators jumped in on CSEA’s side, at first demanding and then suing Astorino to spend every dollar they wanted to see spent, regardless of the County’s budget deficit. They said he didn’t have the legal right as County Executive to make cuts.

Then, with the Board’s encouragement, the CSEA sued Astorino, demanding that he re-hire the 38 CSEA members, even though there were no longer jobs for them to perform — there is no longer a Section 8 contract with the State.

The Board — hang in with me — then demanded that the County’s attorney, an Astorino appointee, represent the Board’s position in the case, not the County’s. And when the attorney raised the it’s-so-obvious-even-a-caveman-could-see-it conflict of interest, the Board threatened to sue him and to deny Astorino the funding necessary to hire an outside attorney to represent the County’s position.  (They later relented, allocating $10,000 in taxpayer funds for an outside lawyer to represent the county.)

I think — think — that’s where it stands now.  I’m at an arm’s length and writing this on my own, so I may have mercifully missed a few steps in the process.

But let me recap:

  • County Executive gets elected to streamline government with 58% of the vote;
  • County Executive cancels optional contract costing taxpayers $1 million a year, with no loss of services, to streamline government;
  • Union sues to restore 38 non-existent jobs;
  • Democratic legislature takes union’s side and fights to prevent County from defending itself;
  • Democrats force County to hire outside counsel paid for by taxpayers, and
  • Enormous amount of time, energy, and resources wasted to protect the status quo.

If you’ve gotten this far in the post, I thank and congratulate you. This is one of those stories far too complicated to report in detail in a daily newspaper or in a three-minute television news broadcast.  So what the public ends up seeing is something like: “Fight Over Housing Program.”

Battles like these are occurring all over the country, and for just one reason: The public employee unions have bought the Democratic Party and, together, they are fighting tooth-and-nail every effort at reform.

Thankfully, people like Rob Astorino, Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker are standing firm.

UPDATE: (By marvelous coincidence, a piece on this exact same issue was published today by Democratic-activist Charmian Neary on the news site 10583.  Ms. Neary gets it exactly right.)



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  1. Your Friend says:

    I happily concede this one to you. I left Westchester for this exact reason, so I feel your pain. I’ll even concede that unions can make a lot of unnecessary trouble on issues like this. I’ll remind you I also conceded the issue that union pensions should be privatized, just like pensions for all other workers.

    But now I’m going to point out that you haven’t conceded anything to my side of the argument. Here are the two big points — 1) unions are actually good for low-income people in America. This is pretty simple. It doesn’t address the issue of unfunded pensions that we will never completely agree on. It’s just a simple statement of fact. Unions are good for Main St., maybe not so good for Wall St. 2) The Citizen’s United decision is a big problem for free and fair elections. This shouldn’t be hard for a rational man to acknowledge, but I’m not holding my breath on this one. The right seems to think calling BP a citizen is a perfectly fine idea. I’ve never heard a single thought in support of that idea that makes any sense at all, but I’ll entertain anything you have to say on the subject.

  2. I concede entirely on point one. I have no problems whatsoever with private sector unions, just public sector ones where unions dues are used to fix the system (I have another major concession that I plan to write in the next couple of days.)

    I don’t agree on point two. I’m a total free-speecher as long as there is transparency. I would trade out corporate contributions for union contributions though.

    • Your Friend says:

      If I could only make such a deal! Corporate outspends union by a fair margin. I don’t think your side would let you make the deal.

  3. When you throw in the phone banks and mailings to members, I’d call it comparable. Damned, Dwight, we could have this worked out by morning.

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