Separate and Unequal

April 27, 2014

 

Westchester County in New York State seems to attract a great deal of attention in the media.

 

Not long ago, we learned from a posting on Zillow that property owners in Westchester County pay more in property taxes than the typical resident of any other major American county. The average property tax bill for a single family home in Westchester County comes to $14,829 a year (vs. the U.S. median of about $2,800).

 

There are a number of reasons why property taxes in Westchester County NY are the highest in the nation, but the primary reason is property taxes levied to support public schools.

In a county with a population of just under a million residents, Westchester County taxpayers are supporting some 47 completely autonomous public school districts!

 

Very recently, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino made headlines because he continues to battle the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over compliance with a consent decree approved in 2009 which requires Westchester County to take an active and affirmative role in desegregating local villages and towns in the county which have miniscule populations of African American and Hispanic residents.

 

Some commentators have applauded Astorino for defying the federal government under the guise that, “(Astorino) is doing his job by protecting the neighborhoods of those who worked very hard to live where they live!”

 

I’m fine with the notion that people ought to be able to live where they want to live.

 

However, because New York State allows and encourages public school districts to form around — and to exclusively serve residents of — villages, towns and cities, the impact of this ‘home rule’ approach to public education has created de facto segregation which has produced more egregious and dangerous consequences than the issues debated in the Brown vs. Board of Education case which was decided in 1954 – 60 years ago!

 

We can clearly witness that “Separate and Unequal” has become the standard in Westchester County.

 

It becomes very clear from reviewing NYS Education Department statistics that economic and racial segregation in housing translates directly to school inequality and results in disparate student outcomes.

 

The Village of Scarsdale is one of the communities identified in the Housing Agreement (consent decree) as racially segregated, and thus a priority area for new units of fair and affordable housing.

 

A report released in late April from US News and World Report reveals that Scarsdale High School was ranked among the very best high schools in Westchester County; in New York State; and across our nation.

 

In Scarsdale, no students at the High School receive subsidized meals, and just 9% of students are Black or Hispanic. About 8% of Scarsdale students have been classified with a disability, and 68% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings. Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Scarsdale schools was $27,219, with $17,450 focused on general education students.

 

Meanwhile, just 5 miles south of Scarsdale High School is Mount Vernon High School, where 70% of students receive subsidized meals, and where 95% of students are Black or Hispanic.

 

About 16% of Mount Vernon Students have been classified with a disability, and just 48% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings.

 

Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Mount Vernon public schools was $23,560, with just $11,641 centered on general education students.

 

The real test may be in graduation rates.  For the class of 2012, 95% of Scarsdale seniors graduated with Regents diplomas; at Mount Vernon High School, just 52% of seniors graduated with a Regents diploma.

 

The attitudes and actions of public officials should set a positive example for all people, affirming that our elected leadership is fair, honest and forward thinking.

 

There really is no place in our current society for personal private agendas – working against the general public good – on the part of our elected officials.

 

Municipal and school district consolidation seems to be the only rational resolution — why is this solution so difficult to discuss and resolve?

 

I learned today from an article published in The Journal News that Westchester County has again refused to come into compliance with federal anti-discrimination law and sign a statement to affirmatively further fair housing throughout the county.

The official statement looks something like this: “… (Westchester) county is not going to turn over control of the local zoning of its six cities, 19 towns and 20 villages to bureaucrats in Washington for $5 million in grants.”

This is pure incendiary nonsense, really not different than shouting Fire in a crowded movie theater.

Recalcitrance on the part of the executive branch of Westchester County government will cost villages and towns $5.2 million in community development grants, which had been awarded in 2012 but have been withheld along with all the other rounds of funding since 2011. More than $7 million in grants from 2011 were lost in a similar fashion in 2013.

We elect our public sector leaders to make balanced decisions which are in the best interests of all current and future residents. There really is no place in the American governance process for elected officials to pursue their own personal agenda(s) at the expense of the public good.

Through his continued defiance of the terms of a 2009 agreement between Westchester County and HUD, Mr. Astorino has proven beyond a shadow of doubt that he is unable and/or unwilling to pursue the actions which are in the best long-term interests of the people of Westchester County.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.  The Great OZ Has Spoken!”

It’s time, Mr. Astorino.  Time for you to resign from your current elected position to pursue your private agenda on your own time and on your own dime.

Somehow, Rob Astorino was elected to the position of Westchester County Executive in 2009. Since then, Mr. Astorino has accomplished nothing worth noting, other than a consistent and flagrant disreguard for the laws of New York State and the United States of America.

Now, Mr. Astorino is showing his true colors, attacking his Democratic Party endorsed opponent in the upcoming election for Westchester County Executive, and manufacturing reasons why his silly lawsuits against the federal government are a good idea, despite the fact that none of them have been successful.

Manufacturing his own facts, and drawing on his highly polished skills perfected during his long career as a radio broadcast journalist, Mr. Astorino and his Band of Merry Men are closely following the national model employed by Boehner, Ryan, Cruz and their ‘brothers’ using highly-charged emotional messages backed up by imaginary ‘facts’.

For some unfortunate reason, there seems to be a cohort of gullible — or perhaps dishonest? — New Rochelle residents who are willing to put their own character and reputation on the line to spread false facts.

Meanwhile, Noam Bramson, who has a solid track record of doing the right things to support and benefit the long-term success of all people in the County, is having to deal with the spillover effects of a divisive and dirty attack campaign from Mr. Astorino.

Some days, I wonder if America has been dragged down the rabbit hole by Alice and Astorino, and it’s all just a weird dream which will end with a nice cup of tea?

August 2013.

Westchester County is known as the bucolic gateway to the Hudson River Valley. Located just north of New York City, Westchester has a plethora of attractions, including castles, mansions, historical sites, and the iconic Playland Amusement Park in Rye.

Westchester boasts thousands of acres of parks and nature preserves; world-class museums and performing arts venues; exclusive shopping, wineries and orchards; public gardens; excellent dining; and year-round, family-friendly fairs and festivals.

That’s what current Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and his cronies would like the world to know and believe.

The real Westchester County consists of 45 independent communities on a land area of 450 square miles. Just under 1 Million people live in Westchester, and they are racially, economically and culturally segregated.

From the City of Peekskill (population 24,000) where 51% of the population is white, 14.5% live in poverty, and the median family income is $65,585; to the City of Rye (population 16,000) where 90% of residents are white, just 2.3% live in poverty, and the median family income is $210,824; the contrasts are dramatic.

Meanwhile, it is very clear: Current County Executive Rob “I cut your taxes” Astorino has no shame.

Much like Don Quixote jousting at windmills, Mr. Astorino loves to do battle with various federal agencies. As he stamps his feet and screams, “I want my Maypo”, he tries to divert attention away from the huge financial penalties Westchester County Taxpayers face because of his incompetence, inability to lead and inexperience managing an organization of any size.

The most recent revelation?

The County had been given a deadline of April 2012 to provide Ultra Violet treatment to the water in Westchester Water District 1 which serves White Plains, Scarsdale, Mount Vernon and Yonkers.

Career professionals in the County had developed solutions; Astorino allowed the progress afforded by the solutions to grind to a halt.

Now, we find out that the County has been in violation of the mandate to deliver clean drinking water for 16 months, with probable fines of $37,500 a day. 16 months x 30 days x $37,500 is $18 Million. That’s a lot of money!

Cryptosporidium is the pathogen that is often behind the syndrome sometimes known as “Montezuma’s Revenge.”

It is highly resistant to chlorine disinfection, which is the primary form of disinfection used at most water treatment plants.

As long ago as 1999, the US EPA published definitive research showing that UV treatment is the only reliable and effective treatment system against all pathogens, including Cryptosporidium.

It is somewhat surprising that CE Astorino would mess with folks in Scarsdale.

His predictable pattern of abuse and benign neglect tends toward Mount Vernon, Yonkers, Port Chester, Peekskill and New Rochelle. Those folks just don’t seem to make time to come out to vote, and they mostly don’t make campaign contributions.

Maybe his campaign advisors told him, “Don’t worry, boss. People in Scarsdale don’t drink tap water. They drink bottled water. They will never find out that we are sending them potentially dangerous water.”

Hopefully, some of our neighbors in Scarsdale who do vote will get a bit vociferous about the gamble Astorino and his cronies seem to be willing to take with the physical (and financial) health of fellow Westchester residents.

The Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit against Westchester County this month after county officials refused to enter into a consent decree to resolve the violations.

The potential legal fees and fines are astronomical.

What is even worse?

The lack of UV treatment puts thousands of Westchester residents (the majority of whom are registered Democrats!) at extreme risk of serious illness or even death from drinking improperly treated tap water.

Pretty clever political strategy, I think.

If you can’t convince the other party you have a solid plan and strategy, then disable or kill them so they can’t vote.

Brilliant move, Mr. Astorino!

Rob Astorino – young and inexperienced – was elected to become County Executive in Westchester County NY in November 2009. He ran on a Tea Party platform — at the time (and still today), property owners in the 40+ towns, villages and cities in Westchester County were paying about the highest property taxes in the U.S. Astorino won the election on his promise to cut Westchester County property taxes.

Good news: he succeeded. He delivered what he promised. My County property taxes have decreased by almost $200 since Rob Astorino was elected!

On the other hand, my total property taxes – including City, School and County – increased by +$3,500 since Mr. Astorino was elected — an increase of over 18%.

Over the past 3 years, I have watched Westchester County cut support for safety net services and send the responsibility for providing those services downstream to the local towns, villages and cities.

That makes me very sad, because while the need for services doesn’t go away, and we can and do save $1 in taxes at the County level, only to find that our local municipal and school taxes go up by $3.

We need a County Executive who is able to see and understand the big picture, not a County Executive who has no experience other than as a silver tongued broadcast journalist. This is the 21st century, and we are in a very competitive economic environment.

We just can’t afford the distractions which come from our County leadership sparring with State or Federal government over issues like a consent decree for fair housing, or a mandate for clean water.

Noam Bramson gets it. He is a moderate, middle-of-the road leader who is able to see the big picture and make decisions based on the best interests of the majority of citizens today – and in the future — of our Westchester communities.

Let’s help Mr. Astorino return to his real strength – broadcast journalism – where he has the best chance of making a mark on the American landscape which doesn’t damage the lives of so many good people…..

Trouble in Paradise?

May 13, 2012

At an aggregate level, the population of Westchester County, New York is reasonably diverse: racially, religiously and economically. Get down to the details, and you will find classically segregated neighborhoods, towns and schools. There have been several attempts to break this socio-economic logjam, most recently a landmark consent decree between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Westchester County signed in 2009.

It is now May 2012, and Westchester County is in trouble. The County is in trouble with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because of some alleged oversights in how the County managed federal CDBG funds. U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote has ruled that Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino is required to promote ‘source of income legislation’, which would prohibit discrimination against tenants using Section 8, disability income or other government income to pay rent.

Mr. Astorino vetoed the legislation in 2010 and that veto was one of several matters the monitor assigned to the case was asked to rule by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The monitor sided with HUD but the county appealed that decision.

U.S. District Court Justice Cote said in her most recent ruling, “Under no reasonable understanding of the term can the County Executive be said to have discharged the obligation to promote source-of income legislation when he vetoed the legislation. The veto was an unambiguous breach of the duty to promote…The County Executive’s action constituted the very opposite of what was required under the Settlement, and placed the County in breach.”

County Executive Astorino has vowed to fight the federal government because – despite the written agreement and the court affirmation of his duties under the settlement – he says that he believes he is right.

HUD is withholding federal funding from the County until the County is in compliance with the settlement, an amount that has now reached $12 Million combined for 2011 and 2012, all because of this seemingly foolish ongoing legal stalemate.

Most unfortunate: The withheld money is for affordable housing; new sidewalks; and nonprofits including A-Home ($30,000); Westchester Residential Opportunities ($145,000); and the Housing Action Council ($120,000); each of which is working closely with Westchester County to meet its obligations under the settlement.

It is also money for homelessness prevention; scholarships for disadvantaged youth; summer evening programs for teens; and a medical van for seniors. It adversely affects communities that aren’t even part of the settlement.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development invests a great deal of time and resources each year to ensure that eligibility for various housing-related subsidies is carefully indexed to local markets.

In Westchester County, HUD defines a 2 person household as “low-income” if their gross annual household income is $58,250 or less. That is almost 400% of the Federal Poverty level.

One of the HUD programs available to low-income residents in Westchester County is the “Housing Choice Voucher Program” (a.k.a ‘Section 8’) which assists low-income households by limiting their contribution to their monthly housing expense to 30% of their gross monthly income. There are 17 Section 8 program offices in Westchester County. Each office is an independent program with its own waiting list for assistance, program guidelines and areas of assistance. The availability of apartments which accept Section 8 assistance for renters is limited due to the lack of non-discriminatory ‘source of income’ requirements for landlords.

Westchester County is also in trouble because it is planning to increase the amount that lower income working parents are required to pay for subsidized child care. Westchester County’s plan to increase this share from 20% to 35% of “above-poverty income” will severely and negatively affect many households which are already struggling with the high costs of housing and transportation. Safe, affordable and quality early learning is a societal mandate if we are to have a productive workforce today, and for the future.

We know from 2010 Census data that 30% of Black (or African American) households were headed by a female householder, no spouse present, three times as high as White alone households (9.9 percent), and the “majority of female family households with no spouse present contained own children of the householder…”

2010 Census data for Westchester County tells us that 36.9% of households headed by a single female with children under 5 years are living at or below the federal poverty level.

For a 2-person household, the 2012 definition of living at 100% of the Federal Poverty level anywhere in the continental U.S. is an annual income of $15,130. (Note the disparity between this definition of poverty, and HUD’s definition of “low-income” at $58,250 or less.)

Some will say that there is no connection or correlation between the housing case and the child care subsidy case.

What I see here are two seemingly unrelated actions which will have disparate negative impact on people of color, particularly single female heads of household.

This sort of behavior by an elected official is not only wrong, it seems to be a clear violation of the purpose and intent of federal and state anti-discrimination laws.