The Magazine

A Rare Specimen

Rob Astorino, successful New York Republican

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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That Astorino holds the job he does could also prove an asset in a race for the executive office at the next level of government. The jurisdictions and the issues before a county executive and a governor are different in many respects. But certain things are expected of executives (including presidents) regardless of where they sit. They craft budgets and seek to enact them (as Astorino has every year, working with Democratic legislative majorities). And they may use the veto power against bad bills (as Astorino did so often early in his first term that he named his pen “Veto”). If Astorino runs for governor, Cuomo won’t be the only experienced executive in the race. 

As county executive, Astorino has shown, as one campaign consultant says, “a spine of titanium”—the sort of spine a leader is expected to have. Most arresting is his refusal to yield to the federal housing department’s now four-year-old demand for changes in local zoning laws to accommodate construction of more affordable housing units for low-income people. Sticking to his position has cost the county $7.4 million in housing grants that would otherwise have come to Westchester.

“This is a federalism issue,” says Astorino. If the Department of Housing and Urban Development “is permitted to wander into Westchester County and basically blow away local zoning and seize control over [housing] issues,” he tells me, “then it can and will [do that] everywhere.”

It  is on the strength of his core message that Astorino has succeeded in politics in Westchester. In 2009 he ran for county executive promising to “stop the tax madness” that had made Westchester’s property taxes among the highest in the country. Since 2004, Astorino told voters, the county’s property tax levy had gone up 17 percent. Upon taking office, he cut the levy 2 percent, and it has remained flat ever since.  

As for his promise to get spending under control, Astorino describes a process by which his new administration reviewed every department and chose priorities. He started cutting spending in his own office. In the first year, he reduced his own staff by 19 percent. He then looked at the entire county work force, and by the end of the term he had cut it by 15 percent. 

The biggest savings have come in health care. When Astorino was elected, the county paid the full cost of it, for all employees. Astorino started contributing to his own health care, and members of his staff started doing so as well. So did others in management positions. The remaining 90 percent of the county workforce are members of eight unions.

Through negotiations with seven of the unions, Astorino secured an employee contribution to health care. The eighth union—the Civil Service Employees Association—will meet soon with Astorino. In 2014, Westchester will save $4 million on health care. That sum may increase substantially if the CSEA follows the other unions’ lead. “It was not acceptable to me that taxpayers were paying 100 percent of government employees’ health care,” says Astorino. “That wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t fair.”

None of the reductions in staff affected programs for the least well-off, says an aide to Astorino. Structural changes, he says, were introduced, designed to make the programs more efficient and include more people in them. “We have to make sure that as Republicans we do care for people,” says Astorino. “There’s not an endless supply of money. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a different way to do things.”

Astorino describes his approach to fiscal policy as an effort to find “a healthy balance” between what taxpayers can afford and what people justifiably need in terms of services and programs. “We took our medicine,” he says, “made choices, and we are a much better, financially healthier county today than we were four years ago.” The county budget was $1.8 billion when Astorino took office in 2009 and is now $1.7 billion. Only four counties in the state have lower budgets in real dollars today than they did four years ago, he notes, adding, “We cut $172 million” during that time, and “the other three counties combined didn’t get near that.”

On his first day as county executive, Astorino wrote down three P’s that would guide him: Protect the taxpayers, preserve essential services, and promote economic growth. The first two would bear on the third, he thought. The county has added 27,000 private-sector jobs in the past four years. And while he knows better than to take full credit for that development, he thinks protecting the taxpayers and preserving essential services has communicated that “we are serious about changing the business climate.” 

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