Five Questions With Westchester County Executive George Latimer

Five Questions With Westchester County Executive George Latimer
Westchester County Executive George Latimer

With the COVID-19 pandemic mostly in the rearview mirror, but economic headwinds on the horizon in 2023, Real Estate In-Depth thought it would be a good time to sit down with Westchester County Executive George Latimer to discuss some of the key issues the county is facing.

Latimer, a veteran politician, is in the final two-and-a-half years of his second and final term of office. He won re-election for a second term of office, but in 2019 proposed and in July 2020 signed a bill into law restricting County Executives to only two four-year terms of office.

A native of Mount Vernon, he has been a resident of Rye for approximately 30 years. The County Executive has extensive experience in both the public and private sectors. Latimer’s private sector experience spanned more than 20 years at major corporate subsidiaries of Nestle, and ITT, with on-site responsibilities for projects with AT&T, IBM and Shearson Lehman.

He began his political career on the Rye City Council, then successfully ran for a seat on the Westchester County Board of Legislators where he served for 13 years, including from 1998 to 2001 as the first Democratic Chairman of the County Board. In 2004, he was elected to the New York State Assembly and then in November 2012 won a seat on the New York State Senate, representing the 37th District. In November 2017 he defeated incumbent Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino and won re-election over Christine Sculti in November 2021.

Real Estate In-Depth: Gov. Kathy Hochul withdrew her controversial “New York Housing Compact” as part of budget negotiations but promised to take up some of its provisions this legislative session. Do you believe there is a housing crisis in New York and in Westchester and what facets of her plan do you support and what provisions are you opposed to?

Latimer: Well, I think there is a need for more housing and I think the key element of it is the affordability of the housing. I don’t think that is just a Westchester situation. Westchester is a major part of it because of the cost of living here, but I think it is true in other parts of the state as well. The demand for housing comes from a lot of different sources. Some of it comes from people who live in poor quality housing that want to upgrade to better quality housing and some of it is young people who leave their parents’ home. They may have gone to college and want to start their careers in this area, but they can’t afford market-rate housing. Some of it comes from people who are selling a home and want to downsize and they may have the money from the selling of the house, but the relative expense of moving into an apartment with a monthly charge that is equal to what their mortgage payment was and that it is not deductible creates a problem.

So, there is clearly in my mind a housing problem and she (Gov. Hochul) was right to put her finger on it and I think it is perfectly right to set a goal of what you are trying to achieve—so 3% as a goal of additional housing units across the board in the downstate area makes perfectly good sense to me. Now, I believe the goal should be aggregated countywide, in other words each community can be targeted to try and reach 3%, but it may not be possible for every community to reach 3%. It depends on the topography; it depends on issues such as infrastructure and sewage. Do you have enough sewage capacity? And when you talk about things like Transit-Oriented Development, take a place like Pound Ridge, which has no train station that goes through it. … To me, the difficult parts of her program, and the pushback came from the suburbs in general. In Westchester the pushback is if you mandate things, you will get a negative reaction to it. … If you say you are going to allow a state body to override local zoning, you will get pushback. We certainly want to have local control over the communities that we live in. …

So now, the question is, is the goal admirable? It is. What is the best way to accomplish that goal? I would posit that the best way to get to it and the state has the authority to do this, is to require each of the governments—local governments of all sorts—to put together a plan. That is exactly what they did on police reform. They didn’t say “Your police reform will look like this.” You put together a plan, I put together a plan for each of the jurisdictions and we identify how we get to the 3% number. …

Each community has to figure out for themselves, what they would do and the state always reserves the right to review the plans. … I think Westchester County can work with the state. We can do a specific pilot program with the state alone if they want to go that way. I understand their policies have to deal with all of the counties, not just Westchester. But, my headset is Westchester and I think that in the years to come we can make progress on housing and do our share to address the affordability element of it.

Editor’s Note: County Executive Latimer pointed out a number of municipalities, such as Scarsdale, that have topography issues that would make achieving the governor’s housing goal difficult. He also discussed possible ways to add new housing, including renovating or demolishing outdated office buildings in certain locations. He also cited Mount Vernon as an example where there is already a great density of housing units, but the city’s most urgent need is the renovation of existing substandard housing. The County Executive said the housing issues in Westchester is different than those in Nassau or Orange counties, or New York City for that matter. He also bristled at media reports that portray the suburbs as exclusionary. While the state has the means to penalize communities for non-compliance, Latimer feels that discussion of those harsh measures will only cause less cooperation from local governments and he advocates for more dialogue with municipalities on their particular housing issues.

Real Estate In-Depth: You recently submitted a host of environmental proposals to the County Board of Legislators and also made other announcements geared at reducing the county’s carbon footprint. How serious is the issue of climate change?

Latimer: First of all, climate change is a legitimate concern in my mind. What it is going to take as a society, as a nation and as a world to respond to it is pretty macro. Putting on my narrow headset, there are things that we can and are doing as a county government, and we can do more. … I am not into let’s set a goal for the future and we don’t know how to get there. What have we done specifically? We have converted the bus fleet—330 buses from diesel to electric and hybrid electric. There are more hybrid electric than there are electric vehicles. We have more expensive buses and we got federal assistance in buying those buses. And now, if you stand across the street where buses come all the time on Martine Avenue, you won’t get that blast of diesel fumes. And when we talk about our concern about children with asthma and children of color with asthma, these buses serve the urban parts of the county more than the rural parts of the county and we’ve reduced the air pollution by just that alone, forget the fact that we are using less fossil fuels by having electric rather than diesel.

Now, we look to the next level—the infrastructure, not just for the car fleet that we are converting to electric, but for everybody everywhere and you have to have the infrastructure of charging stations so that people feel comfortable buying an electric car and that wherever they go they can find a place to charge up (their vehicles). Technology over the next few years I assume is going to create faster charging capacity than you have now.

Editor’s Note: The County Executive explained that the county is intending on growing the number of electric charging stations countywide and has also put funds in this year’s county budget to assist local governments build new charging stations. He also discussed other green initiatives, including food scrap recycling and composting, as well as solar projects at county facilities and at county parks.

Real Estate In-Depth: One of the growing sectors of the economy in Westchester and the Hudson Valley is film/tourism. You recently announced the development of the Westchester County Tourism Recovery Plan that was supported by a federal EDA grant. Why is this effort important and what do you hope to accomplish with this initiative?

Latimer: In each case what is common to them (tourism and film) is that people will take action that will generate revenue for Westchester County that will help us run our government without it being a source of taxation. So, it’s a non-tax revenue stream. When you get a non-tax revenue stream, then you are running your government without me having my hand in your wallet. The more we get from film fees, the more dollars we get from tourism—hotel occupancy tax, sales tax spending coming from people outside the county—the more we can run county government without increasing property taxation. On the film side, our proximity to New York City is a tremendous advantage. New York City is probably second only to Los Angeles as a capital for filming television etc. … When they want to film onsite, when they want to film in a historic little village because the storyline lends itself to that, Westchester is perfect. We have all of these different downtowns, big downtowns, small downtowns, neighborhoods, corner shots. You can film on-location and you are right outside of New York City. Yonkers has done a brilliant job, credit Yonkers for what they have done, but that represents a benefit for us (as well). …

Tourism is related in that it is a question of a venue being attractive. With tourism we have some built-in natural advantages—the Hudson River is a great advantage and Long Island Sound is a great advantage. We also have Lyndhurst, Van Cortland Manor, Sunnyside, Philipse Hall, Philipsburg Manor, Caramoor is a wonderful musical venue, you have Playland, which is an attractive venue and walking the Croton Aqueduct and going up to Croton Gorge to see that beautiful dam. We have places that are reasons for people to come and tour, whether it’s a day trip and eat in one of our restaurants or spend an overnight in one of our hotels, all the better. …

Editor’s Note: County Executive Latimer said that he believes film and tourism should be promoted on a regional level and that all neighboring counties will benefit by promoting the Hudson Valley as a region for tourism and film. He said a component of the federal grant for the tourism recovery plan involves a regional approach to tourism.

I think the feds are interested in seeing us help revitalize those industries most hurt by COVID—hotels and certain venues, for sure. There is still an element of the traveling public that is a little dicey because of COVID. … The feds want to see those industries come back and you can give the money to the venue or you can say, “Governments work together and come up with a plan to market the region and give people a reason to come and they (the venues) grow and you move forward with it.”

Real Estate In-Depth: In February 2021 the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency approved a new local hire labor policy that requires incentivized project developers hire 85% of its construction workers from the local area among other mandates. The policy has met with mixed reviews, particularly from labor unions. Is your administration looking to make any changes to the policy or do you believe it has been successful?

Latimer: We are trying to assess the level of success. It is hard to assert whether it has been successful or a failure as an either/or situation. I think one of the things to keep in mind is that the number of projects we incent a year under the IDA (Westchester County Industrial Development Agency) is relatively small when you compare it to Yonkers and New Rochelle where almost all of the construction you see is IDA-incented in those communities. We functionally have the IDA responsibilities for the City of White Plains, Town of Greenburgh, Town of Harrison along the I-287 corridor where you get the most concentration (and Pelham). I think it is a work in progress and I know that the labor unions would obviously like us to impose a more-strict situation—you can’t get IDA funds unless you have labor unions. The development community pushes back on that. They don’t want to be told that. Their attitude is we want to do what is in the interest for us to get the project done and sometimes costs have to be kept lower.

The real answer is not the IDA policy. The real answer is when organized labor and the development community can get back to the table and have candid conversations and get to some agreement. And that is hard to do. … It is a work in progress. I don’t know whether we will seek to modify the policy. I think it is subject to a discussion internally with our executive team about how it is working and whether or not we think a change makes it work. … The ideal scenario is that representatives of the development community and representatives of the labor community sit down and both of them understand that they want to hammer out a deal.

Real Estate In-Depth: Now in your second term of office as County Executive, what are you most proud of and what do you hope to accomplish most of all in your final term of office?

Latimer: I think one of the things I hope to accomplish is a continuation of what we started to do, which was trying to assess the value of our physical assets and upgrade them and I think we have done that—the Sprain Ridge pools, the Miller House, the North and South County Trailways, the Memorial Field project, the New Rochelle Family Court project and Playland. There are other examples out there where we have invested in capital projects to make improvements to physical plants that were ignored or had deteriorated. If I view that as something that I am proud of, then I would project ahead and say, “Where are we going with the County Center?” The County Center was last fully renovated in the late 1980s under (then County Executive) Andy O’Rourke. It needs a more substantial reformatting and not just that it needs to be upgraded and have more modern equipment for the modern meeting and the technology, but also do we do any reconfiguration of the space in order to take advantage of what is now more current state-of-the-art as compared to what it was in 1980. Editor’s Note: The county may also look into modernization improvements at the main terminal at Westchester County Airport, he said.

I think we have four straight years of reducing the tax levy, which has not happened in recent memory. … I think we have been responsible stewards and now can I maintain that to the greatest extent possible? If I can’t lower them (taxes), at least freeze them. If I can’t freeze them, at least keep them under the tax cap. If we are committed to that and we have the money to continue to make capital improvements then I think we are exactly where we want to be.

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