Three candidates vying for two seats on the Westchester County Board of Legislators participated in a candidates forum on Tuesday night hosted by the White Plains Council of Neighborhood Associations (WPCNA) at Education House in White Plains.
The forum featured Democratic incumbent Bill Ryan and his Republican challenger, Iris Pagan, who are each seeking to represent District 5, which covers White Plains and Scarsdale.
Democrat Alfreda Williams, who also participated, is running unopposed for reelection to represent District 8, which covers Elmsford, Greenburgh, Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown and a section of White Plains.
Each candidate spoke briefly about his or her background and reasons for seeking election. They then took previously compiled questions from WPCNA officers before taking audience questions. About 40 residents attended the forum.
Ryan and Pagan are both decades-long White Plains residents. Ryan is seeking an eighth term on the Board of Legislators. He is a former chairman of the Board of Legislators, and is currently serving as president of the New York State Association of Counties.
Pagan, an educator by trade with a doctorate in education, has served as treasurer and as president of the Westchester County Women’s Republican Club. She served on the transition team for County Executive Rob Astorino and currently sits on the county’s Hispanic Advisory Board.
Ryan said in his opening statement that the current economic climate is causing people to rethink county government.
“Public officials like me are searching for the ‘new normal,’” Ryan said. “In the wake of the most serious economic decline since the Great Depression, people are rethinking the traditional role of government. What services should government provide? How best to pay for those services? What can we do to modify or improve the system of service delivery? I want to be reelected so I can be working with you to come up with the very best answers to these important questions.”
Ryan added that as president of the New York State Association of Counties, he will continue to work to eliminate the unfunded state mandates that contribute to residents’ property tax. The nine largest such mandates drive 90 percent of the county property tax levy, Ryan said, with Medicaid costs being the largest, at $211 million annually.
“A state takeover of the local share [of Medicaid costs],” Ryan said, “would allow us to cut county property taxes by about 40 percent.”
Pagan said that the county needs to take a more “hands-on” approach to manage costs, by “going into the field and seeing exactly what’s going on and how money is being spent.”
For example, she added, “we’re not looking at the Department of Social Services and seeing how clients are being disbursed funds and how they are using it. We’re not looking at services that we give for food stamps, for example, and seeing how they’re being disbursed. The solution is not adding money or taking it away. The solution is being thorough and allowing all this information to be transparent.”
Perhaps the biggest disagreement that came up was regarding the county’s affordable housing settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Pagan said she was “absolutely against” the settlement, “in principle and in its enactment.” She said it “branded the people of Westchester County as racist.” The federal government, instead of burdening the people of Westchester, she added, should have confidence in them that they “can solve the problem of affordable housing.”
Williams and Ryan countered by saying that the judge was “telegraphing” that the county would not prevail in the case, and so agreeing to a settlement was in the best interests of the county and taxpayers. Instead of $51 million, which the settlement calls for the county to spend on new affordable housing development, the county would be looking at 10 times or more that amount in liabilities, they said. Williams noted that the housing being developed under the settlement is for middle-income people, including social servants. Ryan noted that as chairman at the time, he delayed a vote while input was taken from interested parties. The settlement called for spending comparable to what was already occurring for development of affordable housing, Ryan added.
The candidates were more in agreement on the oft-discussed notion of sharing services, which has been brought up as a way for county government to facilitate pooling of resources to bring down costs. Ryan said that health care, for example, is an opportunity for greater sharing of services, saying that “I think it’s the future.”
Pagan pointed to the recent merger of the Ossining Police Department into the county police force as an example of effective shared services. However, she cautioned, “it can’t be a knee-jerk reaction, because when you merge services, you give up something; you give up power.”
The candidates will also be participating in a larger event at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in White Plains on Thursday night. Presented by the Business Council of Westchester, the Westchester Putnam Association of Realtors, the Building and Realty Institute, and the Construction Industry Council—collectively known as the Westchester Business Alliance—the event will ask county legislator candidates from throughout Westchester to present their views on key business, economic, and real estate issues affecting the county. Development policies, affordable housing, infrastructure maintenance, and property taxes will be among the issues discussed. For more information, call 914-948-2110.