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By Dan Murphy As all of us in Westchester return from our summer vacations, we begin to focus on the upcoming elections this November and the most important race this fall in Westchester, for county executive, between Republican incumbent Rob Astorino and Democratic candidate and New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson. Over the summer, Astorino was the first candidate to run television advertisements, contrasting his record as county executive on property taxes to Bramson’s record both on the New Rochelle City Council and as mayor. For the past three weeks Astorino has been running an ad titled “Westchester Can’t Afford Noam Bramson,” which states that Bramson: I – gave himself a 40 percent pay raise; II – gave himself a free car; III – gave himself health care for life; IV – Raised property taxes by 109 percent; V – Increased the sales tax; VI – Increased the sewer tax; VII – Increased the library tax; and VIII – Quadrupled garbage fees. After letting the ad run without objection for almost one month, the Bramson campaign filed a complaint to Astorino’s ad with the Westchester County Fair Campaign Practices Committee, against five of the eight accusations in the commercial. (The Bramson campaign did not object to the portions of the ad concerning the 40 percent pay raise, raising property taxes by 109 percent, or quadrupling garbage fees.) The WCFCPC found that five of the claims made in the Astorino ad were unfair; we found that the findings of the WCFCPC were based on semantics and did not include a detailed review of Bramson’s voting record, and the decisions he made in office, which validate most of Astorino’s claims in the commercial. After a review of the ad – which Astorino has not taken down or corrected, the WCFCPC’s rulings, and Bramson’s 16-year record in New Rochelle, we have a different verdict:
I – Free car and health care for life: The WCFCPC found that the policy of providing the mayor with a fee car with gasoline, and free health care for life (for any city official that served more than five years) both “predates Mr. Bramson’s service in office, and he has never taken any action or cast any vote to obtain or enhance this benefit for himself.” While it is true that that a free vehicle for the Mayor of New Rochelle was enacted before Bramson took office, he could have opted out of receiving the free city-owned vehicle – plus gasoline– but didn’t. Many mayors, supervisors and councilmembers in Westchester who serve in a part-time capacity, as does Bramson, do not take a taxpayer-funded vehicle as part of their public service, even though they are entitled to it. Bramson could also have opted out of the “health care for life” provision, following the lead of one member of the New Rochelle City Council who has done so. But Bramson accepted both benefits – or “perks” – and is contributing 18 percent of the cost of his health care plan, along with other elected officials participating in the plan. “Health care for life” is not a benefit under the New York State retirement system; it is unique to New Rochelle and paid for by New Rochelle taxpayers. And because of its significant costs and the ongoing debate of whether union employees should pay a portion of their health care costs, it is a major campaign issue. Oddly enough, nobody knows when the City of New Rochelle approved “health care for life” for elected officials. The Journal News wrote back in 2010 “current city officials said they did not know how or when the city began paying for health benefits for elected officials.” We will inquire to find out. II – Increased sales tax, library tax and garbage fees: The WCFCPC found the finding unfair, stating: “The sales tax rate in New Rochelle is the same today as when Mr. Bramson took office, except for a New York State-mandated increase of 1/8 of 1 percent.” The increase in the sales tax in New Rochelle ties into a much larger issue involving a property tax cap agreement reached between the State of New York and New Rochelle back in 1993. New Rochelle had the first property tax cap, many years before its current form for all local governments and school districts passed in 2011. The agreement called for a 1 percent sales tax increase in exchange for a property tax cap based on the rate of inflation, with the provision that the Sales Tax increase would sunset two years later in 1995. Every year the City of New Rochelle asked the state to extend the sales tax increase, with Bramson voting every year for it starting in 1997 when he joined the City Council. In 2006, Bramson voted for a home rule request from the state to lift the property tax (which was granted), but to also keep the sales tax increase, which was supposed to expire 11 years ago in 2006, and now 18 years ago in 2013. Bramson has taken many votes on keeping the sales tax and not letting it sunset – a fact not included in the WCFCPC’s findings. In regard to the library tax, the WCFCPC wrote: “Finding: Unfair. The library tax in New Rochelle is proposed by the Library Board of Trustees and confirmed each year by the voters.” There was no library tax in New Rochelle until the City Council, and Bramson, voted to create one in 2003 in an attempt to remove the library’s cost from the city budget. This required a referendum, which was defeated twice by the voters but approved it on the third attempt. The
library tax is a separate tax paid for by New Rochelle homeowners that has increased by 63 percent in seven years. A similar decision by New Rochelle to remove garbage collection from City Hall and implement a garbage fee that every homeowner must now pay in addition to their city tax bill was voted on and approved by Bramson and the City Council in 2001, and has risen by 254 percent since then. The garbage tax was called a “fee” in the Astorino ad and not challenged by Bramson nor ruled on by the WCFCPC. Whether it is called a tax or a fee, it is a new expense that the people of New Rochelle must pay – in addition to property taxes. So when Bramson touts in his latest TV ad that New Rochelle has the lowest property tax increase out of all the Westchester cities, he may be correct – but that is because he has removed the cost of libraries and garbage removal from the city’s budget. Other Westchester cities, like Yonkers and Mt. Vernon, all include the cost of their libraries and garbage removal in their budgets. We agree with the WCFCPC in its finding that Astorino’s claim that Bramson increased sewer taxes is unfair. The WCFCPC wrote: “The City of New Rochelle has no authority over sewer district taxes, and the Astorino representatives agreed.” Bramson did not vote to increase the sewer tax but supported the idea, which led to an increase in sewer taxes. Astorino’s primary and most important figure in his TV ad, that Bramson raised property taxes by 109 percent, is accurate and unchallenged. And while all of our local governments are under significant financial stresses, Bramson’s votes for 16 budgets that raised property taxes on average by more than 6 percent hold be viewed in different parts. First, 10 of the 16 votes that Bramson took on the council and as mayor were limited by a property tax cap from 1997 to 2006, and as a member of the City Council, Bramson was restricted to voting for budgets that fell below the 3 percent tax cap. Without the original tax cap, the 109 percent number would be much higher. Second, Bramson’s two most recent budgets have not come in below the current property tax cap that all local governments and school districts must live under. (In New Rochelle and many cities in New York State, local councils can override the tax cap with a supermajority vote instead of going to the voters in a referendum.) The New Rochelle Council and Mayor Bramson approved recent budgets with a 6.99 percent tax increase for 2013 fiscal year (tax cap was 2.49 percent), 5.96 percent for fiscal year 2012 and 5.9 percent in 2011. Going into the fall, the issue of property taxes is front and center in the race for county executive.
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