Ben Boykin, chair of the Westchester County Board of Legislators who represents the 5th District, which includes a large portion of White Plains and all of Scarsdale and West Harrison, participated in a virtual discussion March 18 on a myriad of topics related to policy and local economics for 2021.
The Westchester County Board of Legislators is involved in the passing of local laws, acts and resolutions, as well as allocating government funds, approving local government budgets and levying taxes. In his presentation, hosted by the Scarsdale Forum, Boykin addressed COVID-19 updates and reopenings, 2021 budgets, distribution of funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and police reform, as well as a number of other pressing issues such as environmental and sustainability initiatives and ethics reform.
Regarding COVID-19, Boykin reiterated that the virus is still a risk and that while the county has been working to vaccinate people as quickly as possible, with new locations and groups of people becoming eligible every week, a vaccine supply issue still remains. Still, he commended schools on reopening, citing discussions he has had with medical professionals regarding the toll the pandemic has taken on the social-emotional health of students.
“We must get our schools reopened and kids must get back in school ... This is going to be a generation [with] mental health situations,” Boykin said.
He also applauded the efforts of 12-year-old Scarsdale resident Sam Keusch, who created a website called VaccineHelper, which Keusch uses to book vaccine appointments for New Yorkers in the metropolitan area, mainly senior citizens unable to navigate the complicated government websites (see article on page 3).
Boykin also addressed several aspects of the county’s budgets for 2021.
The 2021 operating budget is $2.1 billion, $15.7 million less than the 2020 budget. Property tax levies were reduced by $1 million, and there was a reallocation of funds to address various social issues worsened by the pandemic. Boykin specified that $5 million was allocated for economic development, $2 million to combat food insecurity and $5 million for housing assistance.
There was also an expansion of financial support to local nonprofits to help the government in distribution of aid services and an expansion to child care support. “We got an additional $22 million in December that we are using for housing assistance,” Boykins said. “The planning department is working with nonprofits now to get that money out [to] people having issues with housing.”
The 2021 capital budget is $264.7 million, $82.1 million less than 2020, which the board plans to invest in bridges, buildings, parking facilities and parks.
As a part of President Joseph Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP), Westchester County will receive about $187.6 million. All municipalities will receive funds, with Scarsdale specifically receiving $1.96 million. Boykin explained there are strict guidelines in place regarding how the money can and cannot be spent, and that municipalities have until Dec. 31, 2024 to apportion these funds. Budgetary decisions regarding ARP funds have not yet been finalized.
Boykin also assured the program’s audience that the Westchester County Board of Legislators had met to discuss police reform, and were set to adopt a report establishing a blueprint for police reform in Westchester County on Monday, March 22. Pursuant to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203, which requires each municipality with a police department to go through a reimagining process and submit a report on proposed reforms to Albany by April 1, 2021, the board of legislators officially adopted the report of the County’s Police Reform and Reimagining Task Force Monday night, after weeks of review by the board’s Public Safety Committee, according to a press release issued March 23. The statement added that “the 177-page report contains 51 recommendations for the County’s police, correction and other public safety operations including implicit bias and intercultural competency training for law enforcement personnel; a formal review of the County Department of Public Safety’s use of social media for branding and community outreach; creation of community liaisons; increased multilingual communications; training in implicit bias and restorative justice for School Resource Officers; joint de-escalation training with the Department of Correction; increased Police Academy training in procedural justice, cultural diversity and bias-related crimes; and creation of a County Office of Police Accountability.”
“We also want a cleaner and greener environment,” Boykin added, lauding Scarsdale’s role in establishing a food scrap recycling program that has since been adopted in other Westchester County towns, and which county legislators are working to expand to other local municipalities. “Because of your efforts, being the first in the county, we are [now] rehabbing our material recovery and transfer facility at Valhalla,” Boykin said. In addition to refurbishing the facility, the county will also be incorporating a food scrap composting program at Valhalla, as well as creating an education center to provide information regarding the process and benefits of composting. The center will also serve as a research center to explore opportunities for food scrap recycling expansion.
“That is a result of your efforts,” Boykin told the Scarsdale audience.
He continued to discuss other environmental initiatives, such as the county’s purchase of a truck to haul food scraps to composting facilities, the upgrading of several public transportation vehicles to more environmentally friendly models, the addition of electric charging stations in public parking lots, and the placement of solar panels on a number of municipal buildings.
The Westchester County Board of Legislators has also been involved in an ethics reform process that, according to Boykin, the board has been working on for many years, but, he added, the social justice impacts of the pandemic have accelerated the process.
“The [ethics] law has been updated and clarified to provide useful guidance for county elected officials, employees and volunteers,” Boykin said. Elected officials and those employed by the county are required to adhere to a certain standard of ethical rules and regulations. So that they, along with the public, are aware of these rules and regulations, the forms and standards have been simplified and clarified in many instances.
“We want to have an ethical board, an ethical county, and a county that works with full transparency,” said Boykin.
In that vein, Boykin made the Scarsdale community aware of an amendment the Westchester County Board of Legislators is working on with regard to the Co-Op Transparency Law passed in November 2018. The 2018 law required co-op boards of directors to notify potential buyers within 15 days whether or not their applications for purchase were completed. Once an application was complete, boards then had 60 days to accept or reject the application. If an application was rejected, the co-op board must send a notice of rejection to the county’s Human Rights Commission, which then has the power to investigate instances of discrimination under the county’s Fair Housing Law. The 2018 law included a sunset provision that mandated the Westchester County Board of Legislators study the co-op law’s impacts in three years.
According to Boykin, since the law’s 2018 passing, more than 400 applications have been rejected throughout Westchester County. Given that co-op boards are not required to give a reason for rejection, it is difficult to identify and investigate discriminatory practices. To counteract that, and in response to complaints of discrimination, Boykin discussed the board’s plans to amend the process to include more oversight and transparency.