Despite being the county executive for Westchester County, he does not have the key to Rye Playland, joked Rob Astorino, recalling a recent assumption his children made about his capabilities as a politician.
“That would be too much like Wally World,” he said, referring to the classic ‘80s movie National Lampoon’s Vacation.
In a discussion of the government-owned amusement park, Astorino pointed out that Playland was costing the county between $3 to $5 million per year to run, with revenues to support the expenses dwindling from $1 million in 2005 to $420K in 2012.
“We need to look at Playland differently,” he said, referring to the county’s plan to have a nonprofit group comprised of Rye residents, Sustainable Playland, along with Daniel Biederman—who helped revive NYC’s Bryant Park—run the park.
In an effort to make Playland a place families visit more than three months out of the year, the plan would remove fences to form a great lawn overlooking the Sound for concerts and other events; add an outdoor ice rink; add year-round restaurants as well as an indoor field house for sports. Rides considered to be historic would remain, while some lesser-used rides might disappear.
The county executive also touched on aspects of the 2012 budget, for which he has reduced spending by $100 million from $1.8 billion to $1.7 billion.
“We have put the brakes on spending in a real way,” he said, pointing to a 16 percent decrease in the county workforce, mostly due to attrition.
But structural problems remain a stubborn thorn in the side of revenue growth.
In addition to flat revenues, “the public employment system is becoming unsustainable,” he said.
For the sake of comparison, he presented the average salary for a private employee, $63,515, and the cost of an average Westchester County public employee, $73,789. With fringe benefits, total salary comes out to $113,635. Since 2001, pension costs have increased by approximately $91 million from $3.3 million to $95 million (predicted cost) in 2014.
Town of Mamaroneck Councilman Ernie Odierna questioned Astorino about ways the Town could be more compliant with the Westchester Affordable Housing Settlement, which has mandated that 750 units of fair and affordable housing must be built in areas with a small population of minority residents.
The town is mulling the rezoning of an industrial area to allow residential units as well as considering homeowners who may be interested in renting out part of their homes.
“Until a federal court says we have to break up all zoning, it’s up to the town or village to make up the zoning,” said Astornio.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently rejected a zoning analysis done by the county that determined that no exclusionary zoning existed in Westchester. HUD is requesting a more detailed analysis.
“The way we’re going to build affordable housing is not through litigation…it’s through cooperation,” said Astorino.