Central to Wednesday night’s debate between county legislator candidates was the issue of reducing government while retaining essential services, with both men emphasizing the need to cut spending but differing in their approach.
Before an audience of about 35 people, Peter Michaelis, the Republican challenger to Democrat Peter Harckham, the incumbent, said he would start with asking union employees to make health care contributions, netting $13 million in savings. When asked by Len Martello of Bedford Hills what specific services he’d cut, Michaelis replied that he “hadn’t gone through all 6,000 lines of the budget,” but would cut expenses like catering and photographers for the board of legislators.
Harckham said he’d been cutting spending for the last four years in office, citing a legislative budget that is 11 percent lower than it was four years ago and a 10 percent reduction in the county workforce. “The numbers don’t lie. My opponent hasn’t even read the budget…That’s not how public policy is done,” he said. “You have to spend hours and hours poring this and do it line by line.”
In an interview with Patch prior to the forum, Michaelis brushed off the 10 percent reduction in county workers as early retirements and said tougher choices needed to be made. “Essential services are wonderful, but we have many to pay for and if there isn’t enough money, then what is essential? I’ll look for consolidation—like the recent merger of the Ossining Police Department with county police—and for getting rid of things like cell phones and travel expenses for legislators.”
After hearing Michaelis say District 2 was considered the “purse” for county services that it received fewer of, relative to lower Westcester, Harckham countered that locals in his district didn’t realize how many services they benefited from—until they needed them.
For more on that conversation, check out the video highlights posted with this story.
“He [Michaelis] has not identified where he would cut,” Harckham told Patch earlier in the week. “Is it early intervention in childcare? Is it emergency services that got us through the hurricane? I have a record of having done it and will continue to do it,” he said, citing his idea to look at merging the department of corrections and probation to save money.
During the forum, Katonah resident Don Scott, Bedford’s GOP chairman attempted to ask Harckham to apologize for a campaign mailing to local Democrats that referred to a radical Tea Party that was “trying to throw us out,” but the League of Women Voters, which moderated the forum, would not allow the question, stating it wasn't issue-related.
Michaelis, snuck in his own rebuttal, announcing that he was a "fiscal, conservative Republican," not a Tea-Partier.
Other questions answered at the forum:
What have you done about public safety and what would you do differently?
Harckham: The first thing we did was put important positions back in [to the county budget] that police chiefs and the District Attorney told us would be a risk to public safety. We passed a DWI bill and a texting law in the county, and a law on teen drinking, making “social host” a crime. I am also working on Emergency Medical Technician parity legislation – we pay for fire and police training but we leave EMTs to grapple with their own training and we would like to bring them under the same umbrella of support.
Michaelis: I am a CERT [Community Emergency Response Team] volunteer in my town and know first hand how important it is. The things the county government does well is to provide police and fire training and [services through] the department of health—we wouldn’t want every town to have its own facility. But until we start cutting from somewhere else, essential services are only essential if we can pay for them.
Where do you come down on the battle with HUD?
Michaelis: Astorino inherited this settlement. I stand with Rob Astorino in sticking to original agreement that was signed. It is what it is and they are going forward on it—it will be met. But the overreach—that we need to go into local zoning codes and change them and override home rule—we will fight that. I helped write Bedford's master plan [by code any large developments must have 20-25 percent affordable housing] and I believe in it.
Harckham: The housing settlement is two years ahead of schedule. By voting for it, we save the taxpayers $250 million in trial costs and got important guarantees—a $51.6 cap for taxpayers. The settlment is a court document…we have guarantees, we preserved home rule, no project an be funded by the county until all local approvals are in place. Do we want to live with feds next five years? We prefer not to, but we took the $50 million guarantee.
District 2 includes North Salem, Lewisboro, Bedford, Pound Ridge, Mount Kisco and part of Somers. On Nov. 8, Harckham will appear on the Democratic, Working Families, and Independence party lines, with Michaelis on the Republican and Conservative party lines.