A review of Westchester County’s deal with Standard Amusements to operate Playland has county officials looking to renegotiate the contract. Saying the deal is unfair, county officials hope to meet with Standard Amusements to hammer out a contract that is beneficial to Westchester taxpayers.
Democratic Westchester County Executive George Latimer charged members of his administration with analyzing the 30-year agreement with Standard Amusements, a deal struck by his predecessor, Republican Rob Astorino, to manage county-owned Playland in Rye.
“The most important issue to be dealt with here is what are the best interests of Westchester’s taxpayers and what are the best interests of Westchester’s residents,” Latimer says.
Playland is slated to open Saturday, and Latimer stresses that though the park shows wear and tear, it is safe.
“It will open unimpeded by any of these discussions,” says Latimer. “It was always planned that Westchester County would be operating Playland in the 2018 season. That is exactly what’s going to happen.”
Latimer says the analysis raises serious concerns in the contract agreed upon by the prior administration and approved by the Board of Legislators. He says the Astorino administration privately allowed for five extensions on payments to Standard Amusements without prior approval by the county Board of Legislators.
“The most recent one, the fifth of these different changes, flips the sequence of events of what the obligations of Standard Amusements is vis-à-vis the obligations of the county, putting the county first in terms of having to laying out money prior to Standard Amusements being responsible to do that,” Latimer says. “And that is a significant material change in the original arrangements as was approved by the Board of Legislators.”
He says the most recent changes occurred between November and January 1, the transition period after Latimer won the election. Republican Board of Legislators Minority Leader John Testa of Peekskill believes the current contract is fine.
“I think they have to tread carefully. I think it’s a good contract. I think it takes $30-plus millions off the backs of the taxpayers of Westchester,” says Testa. “Without this, we’re having over $100 million in costs to the county, which is just far beyond anything we can even comprehend; I don’t think we should even contemplate, but that’s what it will be if they cancel this contract.”
Latimer says that per the contract, the county receives no profit sharing until roughly 11 years after Standard Amusements takes over management of the park. Plus, he says, Standard Amusements has only paid $1 million to the county of initial required payments, and still owes $1.25 million. County Director of Operations Joan McDonald, one charged with performing the analysis, believes attendance projections were overstated.
“It’s been in the 400,000- 500,000, 520,000 over the last four or five years,” McDonald says. “To jump by 50 percent within the first three years, we think, is very unrealistic, which gave an unrealistic expectation of what that revenue would be even before you got into the expense categories.”
County Attorney John Nonna also performed the analysis. He says if the contract cannot be renegotiated, then the county should look at the cost of terminating the agreement.
“Is it cheaper for the taxpayers to terminate the agreement than to go forward with a 30-year agreement that will be less advantageous where the county will lose money comparatively speaking,” says Nonna. “What’s best for the taxpayers is our responsibility, and that’s the way we have to look at legal issues, not what’s best for Standard Amusements.”
Latimer says the analysis was sent to Standard Amusements and he hopes to set up a meeting soon. In a statement, head of Standard Amusements Nicholas Singer says, “We are pleased Westchester County has completed its review and look forward to engaging with the County to resolve any concerns as expeditiously as possible.” County attorney John Nonna:
“Well, my sense of my very preliminary discussions with their counsel, whom I know very well, is that they would like to sit down and talk,” says Nonna.
County Director of Operations Joan McDonald
“I heard directly from Nick Singer at Standard, and they are very interested in sitting down and continuing the dialogue,” says McDonald.
Latimer, who lives near Playland and took the bus there during summers as a kid, wants to approach the contract not only from financial and legal aspects, but from a public policy standpoint.
“And I think the lack of commitment to looking at Playland as an asset is what undermines this overall arrangements. You will negotiate the deal very differently if you see this facility as I do, which is this is the jewel of our park system. This is something unique,” Latimer says. “And someone says no other government owns or runs an amusement park, I don’t consider that a negative; I consider that a positive.”
All told, Latimer says the current contract leaves the county investing millions of dollars without seeing a significant return on investment.