CROSS RIVER, N.Y. The candidates for the Westchester County Board of Legislator's District 2 Democratic incumbent Peter Harckham and his Republican challenger Peter Michaelis squared off in a debate last week, sponsored by the League of Women's Voters.
District 2 includes Lewisboro, Pound Ridge, Somers, North Salem, Bedford and Mt. Kisco. Throughout the debate, which was held Thursday night at John Jay Middle School, Michaelis' overriding theme was that the county government is too big, taxes are too high, and partisan politics are too prevalent.
"Do you want big government and that status quo?" he asked the crowd. "We have been the highest taxed county in America with a dysfunctional county legislature. The county government is bloated and it is time for new leadership. I will make real cuts."
Michaelis accused the Democrats in the legislature of having a million dollar slush fund for pet projects and promised that, if elected, he would help Republican County Executive Rob Astorino to trim away the pork. "I will fight for property tax relief and for home rule in local zoning issues," he said.
Harckham countered by saying that during his tenure the budget has been slashed and taxes have been reduced. "We do have a smaller, more efficient government," he said. "We've cut taxes by 2.2 percent and cut spending by $30 million, and we've cut the workforce by 10 percent. I am proud of my record."
Harckham also said he feels environmental issues will be some the biggest challenges in the coming year, such as the state's unfunded mandate that municipalities reduce the prosperous content in their lakes, streams and water supplies. He said finding money for such projects will be challenging. "However, I feel a good environmental policy is a good economic policy," he said.
Michaelis brought the debate back to fiscal matters, saying cutting taxes is the biggest issue. "There were 247 overrides [of County Executive Astorino's budget proposals] and that's an awful lot," he said. "If there hadn't been that many, we might have had a 7 percent cut in taxes instead of 2.2 percent."
Micahelis also said he felt the northern part of the county often got the short shrift from the legislature. "We don't seem to get a lot," he said. "For every [tax] dollar we send down, it seems like we get a nickel back."
Harckham rebutted by saying 110 of those overrides dealt with public safety issues and that some budget items were grant funded and mandated. Both candidates seemed to agree that the Tappan Zee Bridge reconstruction plans should be approved, but that the project should not move forward unless it includes a mass transportation component.
"The project could create thousands of jobs," Harckham said. "Right now, we need trade jobs and this could open that up. It would also restore the Hudson Valley as the economic leader of New York."
Michaelis reiterated one of his biggest complaints: county employees don't contribute toward their benefit plans. He said he hoped to change that as a way to increase budget revenue.
Harckham agreed that while concessions may be in order, he felt Michaelis' approach was too heavy handed. "You don't just hold their hand to fire and say we need 'X' or else," he said. "You have to be able to negotiate."
Harckham said he has kept his promises as county legislature and he hopes that's enough for voters to elect him to another term. "Government is smaller and we pay less taxes," he said. "But there is still more to do."
Michaelis countered by saying, "My opponent believes in big government. But enough is enough. I will represent the district and not the interests of the leaders down county."
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