Five Questions with Westchester County Executive George Latimer

Five Questions with Westchester County Executive George Latimer
Westchester County Executive George Latimer

This month, Real Estate In-Depth talks with Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who recently announced he would be seeking a second term of office.

As the COVID pandemic drags on and the county’s death toll topped 2,000 residents earlier this month, the County Executive has had to deal with a host of issues in addition to the health and financial fallout the virus has caused, such as the future of Rye Playland, the need to develop more than 11,000 units of affordable housing, as well as the need to address discriminatory practices in the cooperative housing sector to name just a few.

Latimer, a native of Mount Vernon, has been a resident of Rye for nearly 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.

Real Estate In-Depth: Realtors and some county lawmakers believe that the co-op buying process needs to be reformed to include requiring co-op Boards to state in writing why a prospective buyer was denied. Are you in favor of that change to the current county regulations?

Latimer: I think it is a debatable issue before the County Board and they look at all sides of it. On one side of it, you certainly don’t want discrimination. You don’t want people to say we don’t want you in our building because of your ethnicity, your religion or what have you. I think that’s a reprehensible way to factor people out. On the other hand, you will hear from co-op officials that they are looking for people that they think will fit into something where you actually own shares; you are not just renting an apartment, you are actually becoming a part of the infrastructure that operates the building and you want to have a person you think you can work with.

So, I don’t know what the balance point is. We originally had a referral mechanism when we did the last reform two years ago, which tightened the time frame that they (co-op Boards) had to respond, which I thought was good, and then a requirement of a referral to the Human Rights Commission. I don’t know how many cases there were—pure human rights violations—and I think that’s the key. If it is apparent that there is consistent rejection of co-op applications because of race or gender or religion, then the reform will be necessary. But, if we are finding that the rejection is not prejudicial, it may be judgmental, but is not prejudicial, then it falls under a different category and let that be the debate.

Real Estate In-Depth. With the recent settlement with Standard Amusements, what can you tell us in terms of the future management and improvements planned at Rye Playland?

Latimer: Well, the county is committed to putting in well over $100 million worth of improvements to the park. The county continues to own the facility, even though Standard (Amusements) will have a 30-year arrangement to manage it. We want to see the park thrive. We want to see kids come there, grow the attendance and grow the experience and the enjoyment like it once was. So, at the end of the day that is our mission and we are going to work with Standard to try and accomplish that. Now, they have the position of the primary authority and responsibility and management of the park, that is what (former Westchester County Executive) Rob Astorino signed in the deal and that is what is going to happen. We are certainly going to be involved financially and we are going to be involved as an active partner, not a passive partner, and the hope is that Playland will improve demonstrably and people will see it, feel it and enjoy it.

Editor’s Note: Standard is contractually obligated to spend more than $30 million in primarily ride and new feature-oriented improvements to the park, while the county’s $100 million will be focused more on infrastructure improvements.

Real Estate In-Depth: While you held down tax increases in this year’s budget despite the pandemic, some have said that COVID relief funding from the federal government was critical in achieving that result. Do you agree and could you tell us what measures you would have taken and what tax increase the county would have been forced to impose without such federal aid?

Latimer: Well, the federal aid helped us handle the excessive expenditures that we received because of COVID. If we had the excessive expenditures and we didn’t have any additional aid, then we would have spent significantly more money and could have very easily had a 5% increase in property taxes, without question. You are talking about overtime in the Health Department, overtime in the police and corrections departments. Just imagine, you have so many police on post, a group of guys get COVID and so you can’t hire police like substitute teachers, so you have guys work overtime. And when they work overtime, they get time and a half or double time and that cost goes through the roof because a wide variety of people get COVID on and off the shift and they are infecting other people. So, to have the coronavirus aid money cover that got our costs back closer to normal. And to have money from coronavirus (aid funding) that we used to help us stabilize businesses, in fact helped them stabilize. And they did a little better in sales tax revenue than we would have received if we did none of that. We thought the sales tax revenue was going to be disastrous, a total crash, while it went down, it wasn’t of the same magnitude (the county had predicted). So, we were able to realize a little bit better result on sales taxes.

Those are examples of how the coronavirus money helped us and I think the bottom line is this—all factors being equal, we could have used the coronavirus as an excuse to raise taxes, but we didn’t. The very smart people that we have working in this government figured out how to balance the budget honestly and honorably and then at the same time cut taxes a little bit, not a huge amount, but cut it a little bit and also meet all of our obligations. I think that is smart management. Let’s be candid. When I ran for office, the argument on the other side of the aisle was always that if you elect a Democrat you are going to raise taxes. Watch out for the Democrat, he is going to raise taxes. We just cut county property taxes two consecutive years—the first time in 20 years. So, I guess the rhetoric does not match up with the reality. The reality is that we understand that taxes, property taxes particularly, are problematic and we have to try and keep them under control and the last two years I think we should get credit for what we did.

Real Estate In-Depth: I know one of the key issues you have advanced is the need for more affordable housing in Westchester County. The Journal News reported that a study from your office last year found that 11,700 new affordable housing units are needed to address needs in Westchester. The study also found a total of 82,451 units require affordability relief. Can you spell out how the county is addressing this critical need for so many in Westchester?

Latimer: Well, the first thing is the county has faced up to the need, because for the prior administration, affordable housing was not seen as what their responsibilities were. They fought the HUD lawsuit and then they obviously had to accept the final settlement and develop 750 units of housing to satisfy the settlement. We walked in the door and we believed in affordable housing and we embraced it. We are the ones that authorized the (affordable housing) study. We didn’t have to, there was no mandate to do it and then once you see the study come out and you see the need of 11,000-plus units, it tells you this isn’t about getting 750 units to satisfy the court case and then you are done. You haven’t begun being done and that I think is a factor.

Right now, we are working on in some way shape or form on about 1,400 units of affordable housing, which is slightly above 10% of what that goal is. We think we can juice that up higher, but again we are operating in a pandemic, so while certain projects were underway before the pandemic hit, projects that would start from scratch have been kind of bumped off to the side because the pandemic freezes up capital and freezes up a number of other things that are necessary to move forward. But, we are working it.

Editor’s Note: County Executive Latimer provided updates on a number of affordable housing projects including a 36-unit building in Port Chester, a 75-unit WestHELP project and a housing development in Peekskill to be developed by Wilder-Balter Partners.

He concluded his remarks on the affordable housing issue by saying, “Do I think we have a long way to go? We have a long way to go, but I think we are committed to making the journey and the process and we have started and we are on the road (to addressing the affordable housing problem in Westchester.)

Real Estate In-Depth: In looking back on the past 11 months of the pandemic, is there any event or moment that affected you personally the most and has there been anything positive to come out of this that you can point to?

Latimer: Very early on in the process, I had heard that a fellow by the name of Glenn Bellitto had contracted COVID. Glenn was an Eastchester Councilman, a Republican. There was a time we had the same dentist, so I must have met him conservatively close to 30 years ago and neither he nor I were involved in politics when we first met. I liked him. He was a nice guy. We chatted a little bit and got to know each other and over time we found ourselves, when I became a (State) Senator when I represented Eastchester and he was on the Board, we would be at some Eastchester community events and so forth. He contracted COVID, got very sick and died within a week (on April 2, 2020 at the age of 62). When I heard that I shook. He was a couple of years younger than I, not a lot, but a couple of years younger, and I was shocked by it, I couldn’t believe it. This was very early in the pandemic and he was probably the first fatality of anybody I knew and of course I have come to know others since then. He was not in his advanced years, he was not in a nursing home, he did not to my observation have any comorbidities. Like I am, he was a little overweight, but he was just a really great guy. And that struck me and what it did was, it turned the pandemic from a discussion of this is a health care crisis and we have to have process, this turned into this is a person I know has died. And from moment in time I took it very seriously. And at that time, on a national level there was a lot of minimizing the threat. ‘Oh, it’s not that bad. ‘Oh, it’s going to be like the flu.’ ‘Oh, it’s just being used to try defeat me in the election.’ But, I knew that wasn’t true because it had already cost somebody that I knew. And so, I think from that point forward, and I don’t try and present myself as some superior leader, I think I am a good guy, I work hard and I try to do my job every day, but I took this thing seriously.

Editor’s Note: Some positives the County Executive pointed to since the pandemic began included the emergence of Zoom as a means to conduct operations safely, as well as the opening of some parks and golf courses. He noted that this past summer, the county’s six public golf courses had the most rounds of golf played in their history.

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