Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Advocate
Richard Blassberg

Greed In County Government

Chairman Ryan And County Legislature Making The Best Argument Yet For Abolishing County Government

At a time when Westchester taxpayers are struggling, as never before, to hold onto their homes; at a time when we are the highest property-taxed county in the state, if not the nation; and, at a time when we are realizing
that our courts and law enforcement agencies have not always been working in our best interest; as if to add insult to injury, Westchester County Government, Larry Schwartz, Andy Spano and Bill Ryan, would have us
look the other way as one more time they stick their hands into our pockets in order to line their own.

The truth is, Larry and Company are totally out of control. There is no loyal opposition and virtually nothing to prevent the kind of looting of the public treasury we are now seeing. And, it’s not as though we didn’t see signs of what was coming back in March with Reggie LaFayette’s and Carolee Sunderland’s $28,000 raises, effectively paying our “part-time election commissioners” nearly twice what their counterparts in Nassau County are receiving. What we are witnessing is nothing short of arrogance and greed. At a time when Westchester’s families, homeowners and apartment dwellers alike, are struggling to keep their heads above water, Bill Ryan, who already earns nearly $1,000 a week simply for being one of 17 County Legislators, plus $800 more for being Board Chairman, now wants another $700 just because he believes he’s working too hard and too long, and isn’t making nearly as much as Andy Spano or, for that matter, Larry Schwartz, or Reggie LaFayette, or Rocco Pozzi, etc., etc.

From a taxpayer’s standpoint - what we get for what we give - they are all vastly overpaid, not merely for the actual time they put in, exclusive of their self-promoting and perpetuating activities but, more importantly, from the standpoint of what we have a right to expect from our County Legislators; to actually protect their constituents from the whim and the will of a County Executive whose agenda and modus operandi is under the control of someone, the likes of Larry Schwartz, a tyrannical control freak. From the standpoint of exercising checks and balances, needed control over a County Government grown way out of proportion to its rightful place in our lives, the County Legislature is a huge failure; perhaps more accurately, a body of co-conspirators.

It’s difficult to recall the last time a County Legislator took the County Executive’s Office to task, about anything.
Everything is so peaceful between these two branches of County Government, it’s frightening!

Who, after all, amongst the 13 Democrats on the Board, is going to stand up to Larry Schwartz, the man who holds the key to the vault, the depository of all the monies raised by the Democratic County Committee Organization; money that gets doled out to Democrats who do what they are told? When it comes down to a choice between doing what is right by their constituents or doing what Larry wants them to do, nobody seems to have principle enough, or guts enough, to do the right thing. That’s how Mob-connected carters took over the County solid waste operation for $17 million more than necessary. That’s how County employees work without a fair contract, some for years. That’s how one person is Commissioner of both Probation and Corrections, doing neither job well. That’s how fraudulent election outcomes were achieved before, and after, the fact.

The state of affairs in Westchester County Government, in many ways, resembles the conditions in County Court: Unresponsive to the needs of the people, and filled with players whose sole objective is to perpetuate their time in office, and to sap as much money from taxpayers as possible. As it stands now, there are far too many people in County Government who think we owe them a living.

The League of Women Voters, whose representative spoke out against increased stipends last Monday, remain consistent with their position two years earlier, in December 2005, when they declared, “The LWV of Westchester opposes stipends for everyone other than the Chair of the Board of Legislators. However, we want to emphasize that we consider the proposed $40,000 stipend for the Chair to be excessive.” Now, the proposed stipend has grown to $75,000.

Under the present circumstances, there are no checks and balances as between the County Executive’s Office and the Board of Legislators. Whatever Larry wants, Larry gets. Given the overwhelming Democratic enrollment, it’s no longer necessary to fix elections to reelect Andy as they did with Larry Horowitz in 2001. Remember when Andy first ran for County Executive, solemnly promising that he would be a two-term Executive? He’s now in his third term and making it abundantly clear that he will be seeking a fourth. Could it be that the County Executive perceives Bill Ryan as a probable strong rival for his position and is attempting
to stave off that possibility with taxpayer dollars?

Now that the Republican Party is virtually dead in Westchester, and even the cross-endorsing parties who were once a factor are insuffi-cient to make up the difference, those in office are totally free to rob the public treasury without fear of criticism from a meaningful opponent, without fear of a loss at the polls. As more and more middle-income families are forced to flee the County, unable to handle the enormous tax burden, the community will ultimately consist of the wealthy and the impoverished. Some solutions come to mind, term limits for one.

An elected official ought to be able to do their best work in eight years’ time, or else move on. Eight years, whether it’s two four-year terms, as in the case of the County Executive, or four two-year terms, as in the
tenure of County Legislators, should be sufficient. Let’s put an end to coronations. The residents of Westchester, families and taxpayers, are under no obligation once having elected someone to office, to guarantee
that person lifetime employment and a fat pension.

It used to be that one could argue, “But what if they’re doing a great job for their constituents?” That argument breaks down when one party becomes as overpowering as the Democratic Party has become in Westchester,
and loyal opposition is all but non-existent.

While we have recently seen the primary election solution, as in Mount Vernon, it does not take too much imagination to recognize that if County Government continues to fatten itself, as it has been in recent years,
there will soon come a time when taxpayer revolts and calls for the abolishment of County Government will be seen and heard everywhere, from Mount Vernon to North Salem. And, that might just be a good thing.

The Guardian interviewed Legislator Mike Kaplowitz, Chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee of the County Legislature. Kaplowitz acknowledged that at some time or another most, if not all, Democrats sitting on the County Board of Legislators, received some campaign assistance from Andy Spano, (Larry Schwartz).

He stated up front, “The issue of raises for legislators, and particularly for Bill Ryan, the Chairman, should have been handled with more transparency and not at the last minute.” He went further, stating, “It would have been
inappropriate to vote on it on Monday (December 10th), having just received it the previous Friday.”

The proposal was put forward by the Rules Committee, consisting of Republican George Oros, and Democrats Marty Ragowski, Clinton Young, and Bill Ryan.

Kaplowitz, obviously unhappy both with the reality and the public’s perception of the way compensation for legislators was handled, pointed out, “The County Legislature’s Charter makes allowances for a Compensation Committee that will go to the issue of compensation for County Legislators. We will deal with this in the new term.”

Asked how long it has been since a Compensation Committee has acted, Kaplowitz responded, “Years.” In any event the hard decision with respect to changes in legislators’ compensation was put off a week until Monday the 17th.

We introduced the issue that Chairman Bill Ryan is, after all, merely one of 17 legislators elected by only the voters in his legislative district, unlike the Yonkers City Council President, who was elected at large.

Kaplowitz concurred, responding, “He’s an equal amongst equals.” Kaplowitz also conceded that nearly all of the legislators, with the exception of a few who are retired and collecting Social Security and/or other pensions, do, in fact, have other full-time employment and are not totally dependent upon public compensation.

There’s an axiom that states, “The longer the distance between the person who earns the money and the person who spends the money, the dumber the decisions.” County legislators are not supposed to be that far removed from their taxpaying constituents.

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