Westchester County Exec. eyes infrastructure projects, "unlikely" to run for governor in 2022
After months of negotiations, Congress has passed President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. With money set aside for highways, broadband internet and more, local leaders are eyeing a number of ways to utilize the money. Among them is Westchester County Executive George Latimer, a Democrat who was elected to a second four-year term earlier this month. Latimer spoke with WAMC's Jim Levulis Wednesday.
Latimer: Well, I don't know how much Westchester will get out of the piece. But I can tell you the things we'd use it to fund. We're in the process of converting our bus fleet, Bee-Line bus system, from diesel to electric. We bought six electric buses and we have about 100 some odd hybrid electric buses, out of a fleet of 330. There is money in the infrastructure bill to help advance that and we're all in. We have the second largest ridership in New York State behind of course, New York City. We have more bus riders on the Westchester system than any other public bus system in the state. And we want to make that conversion faster. There's money in there to do that. We've embarked on creating electric vehicle charging stations around the county. But you know, we're doing it with what our resources provide. There’s money in the infrastructure bill that can help us advance that and put many more electric vehicle charging stations in place. And of course, the more of those that you have, the more infrastructure, the more comfortable people will be moving towards electric vehicles, which will benefit the environment and so forth. In this infrastructure bill there is money that will help us deal with remediation, environmental remediation of PFAS polluted areas. You know, I can't tell you Jim what PFAS stands for, it's a long chemical name, but it's a chemical compound that sinks into groundwater and can pollute drinking water streams. We're spending a lot of money to deal with an issue that came up in the mid 80s with fire foam at the county airport that now has gotten into the groundwater. We're trying to prevent it from getting to one of our reservoirs. It's an expensive proposition. And we can fight both this particular incidence of PFAS and others much better with the money in the infrastructure bill. There’s money in there for bridges, we have a big l bridge project that's coming up. There's money in there for the Penn Station Access Project, which benefits Westchester and the Bronx, by opening up a commuter rail line that will take you from the northern suburbs into Penn Station. Right now all of our lines going to Grand Central, but to have an access to a West Side station at Penn Station is a big plus for commuters in Westchester County. I've you know, I commuted for a while to location and Tribecca every day. And to get off Grand Central, you know, take the subway system across the Time Square that down, added to my commute. And once we have some Penn Station Westside access, that's a benefit of and there's money in this infrastructure bill for that. So I think, you know, as we know, as we become knowledgeable about how we have to compete for the money, or bid for the money, whatever the right strategy is, we'll be ready. We've got projects that we know will be positive, will fit the requirements of the grants or the loans, and will be ready to go to use it to good use.
Levulis: Now also, under discussion in Washington is the future of the state and local tax deduction. What are you hearing from fellow political leaders in regards to that?
Latimer: Well, I think most of us in New York understand that, that getting rid of the SALT deduction was a mean spirited blow to New York taxpayers. And the taxpayers might be conservative or liberal, it really doesn’t matter. But when you make decisions about buying a house, and you know, how you finance things, you have a certain advantage with the tax deductibility. It was there for 100 years, and then it was removed very arbitrarily by the Trump administration. And I think most New Yorkers pushed back against it. So if it can be reinstated as a full deduction, that would be appreciated. I mean, obviously, something is better than nothing. And if the final result is you've moved from a $10,000 cutoff to a higher cutoff figure that would be helpful. But, you know, the bottom line is that it was done in a way by the Trump administration to send a message to blue states, we all know it. And, the fact that they even have some defenders in New York because they defend the ideology of Donald Trump. And so therefore, they come up with this convoluted argument for why losing that benefit was OK, that's all, you know, partisan frivolity. If it can be restored, it would be helpful to our taxpayers. That's the single biggest hit in a taxpayer wallet in the last four years. Not the local school taxes, not the local any taxes. But what they did with SALT to get rid of that deduction, that took a chunk of money out of people's wallets and if it can be fully restored, great. If it can't be we'll take the next question.
Levulis: Governor Kathy Hochul was in Mount Vernon in Westchester County on Tuesday. You two had a chance to talk. What did you discuss?
Latimer: Well, we discussed how appreciative we were that the state has brought pediatric [COVID-19] vaccines into local governments, county in this case, into the Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Center. The announcement was 600 units of pediatric vaccinations going into that health center. I grew up about six blocks from that center on the south side of Mount Vernon, which is a poor neighborhood. It was working class poor when I was a kid 16 years ago. And it's a poor neighborhood today, 60 years later, and those kids need that access. And so we're very grateful to the governor and her team for doing that. We also have gotten an allocation in the county of another 500 units, which we're going to be disseminating from our White Plains public health center. So we've got a rollout as we did in the spring, and overall plan for how we're going to get vaccinations done. Now we've got, you know, a couple of changes. First of all, you still have people getting first time vaccinated. However small a number that is, in Westchester over 91% vaccinated, which is pretty amazing, adults 18 and over. But we still have some first time vaccinations. Then we have booster shot vaccinations that are eligible for people in all three, you know, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson. And now we have pediatric vaccinations for kids under 12. So we've got like a whole challenge to figure out. And you know, the state is our partner in this and Governor Hochul was here. We appreciate that support.
Latimer: Back in August when you spoke with WAMC, your name was being floated as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2022. You didn't close the door on a bid at that time. Since then the Democratic primary started to fill up with Governor Hochul and now Attorney General Tish James and others. So where do you stand now? Will you run for governor next year?
Latimer: I think it's pretty unlikely at this stage of the game. Never say never. But, you know, I think it's pretty clear to me that the candidacies of Governor Hochul and Attorney General James are the major candidacies. You know, I know the players in the game. I know some of the other folks who are being speculated you may get a couple of other people in [New York City Public Advocate] Jumaane Williams, I guess is going to go in, maybe [New York City] Mayor [Bill] de Blasio, perhaps [Congressman] Tom Suozzi. But I really do from where I'm sitting now, it looks like a two candidate race. And I think, you know, it's fair to say that women who have never had a governor before today, you know, feel a certain sense of pride. They would like to see a woman governor after 56 male governors. They're happy to see a female governor, whether it will continue to be Governor Hochul or Attorney General James, we're going to find out but you know, I think it's, you never say never, but I think it's pretty unlikely that I'm going to be in the gubernatorial sweepstakes. I'm very happy to be county executive, I got a great county to run. And I'm anxious to do a good job here.
Levulis: Do you plan to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary for governor?
Latimer: I assume at some point in time, we will. An endorsement though, won't just be you know what I do on my own. You know, the leader of the Westchester County Democratic Party, Suzanne Berger, is a good friend and you know I don’t like to get out in front of local political leadership. And there are a lot of important people in Westchester County, [New York State Senate Majority Leader] Andrea Stewart-Cousins being one of them. She's the most prominent Democrat in the county. And you know, her opinions will have a lot of sway. And the way people like, Mike Spano is a friend of mine, the mayor of Yonkers is an important person. We have plenty of state legislators I was I was part of both of those delegations Senate and the Assembly delegation. So I think you'll see us have some conversations here. I don't expect it's going to happen in the short term. But at some point in time, as the process starts to advance. A lot of it has to do with whether or not we're going to see redistricting done in approximate timeframe. And are we going to have a February state convention, and then a primary in June, or as I hear some rumblings that we may not be able to close the state legislative lines in time for that. And you may see that the state will be dealing in a September primary again for this one year because of redistricting. We’ve moved to June primaries in general. But if that happens, that will stretch out the process and everything will start to go over a longer timeframe. You'll deal with the congressional nominations in June, but you'll deal with the state ones a little bit late in September, so that might give us a longer time to look at what's happening.
Hear Latimer detail his $2 billion proposed 2022 budget.