YONKERS — Things got testy between Republican Rob Astorino and County Executive Andrew Spano during a televised debate last night as the two candidates sparred relentlessly on taxes and public safety issues, including Indian Point.
In their first head-to-head debate, Astorino repeatedly accused the Democrat Spano of being “out-of-touch” with the needs of struggling families and allowing county property taxes to surge by nearly 40 percent in recent years. The taxes, he said, had driven many families to leave the county.
“Nobody has inflicted more financial pain on Westchester families than Andy Spano,” Astorino said at one point during the debate. “He blames (state) mandates. He blames Medicaid. He blames everybody but himself.”
Spano accused Astorino of distorting his administration’s record and sought throughout the session to depict the GOP challenger as an inexperienced politician who would say anything to get elected. He also took aim at Astorino’s position on Indian Point, attacking him for not being a more vocal critic of the plant’s owner, Entergy.
“He is a puppet of Entergy,” Spano said. “And I would not expect him to protect me if he was county executive.”
Astorino, a county legislator from Mount Pleasant, responded that safety at the plant would be his top priority and knocked the Spano administration’s emergency planning, including the absence of elaborate drills. He also criticized Spano for not doing enough to prepare for an emergency at Kensico Dam, which he labeled a “far greater terrorist target” than the nuclear plants.
With less than two weeks remaining before Election Day, the debate likely represented Astorino’s best chance to get his message directly to voters. Sponsored by cable station News 12, it was carried live to subscribers throughout Westchester and will also be re-broadcast at various times over the next few days.
Astorino, who served on the Mount Pleasant town council before becoming a county legislator in 2004, cast himself as one of many residents struggling to raise a family in an ever-more expensive Westchester and criticized Spano for the 38 percent jump in Westchester’s property tax levy that took place over three years, beginning with the 2002 budget.
Spano rejected Astorino’s criticism and, as he has throughout his re-election campaign, took credit for stabilizing and streamlining Westchester’s budget in the face of extreme financial pressure from expensive state-mandated programs like Medicaid. He noted that the county’s 2005 budget contained no property tax increase and the outlook for 2006 was also bright.
“I’ve had seven budgets,” Spano said. “Three we decreased taxes, two of the largest decreases in 30 years. One, this year, zero. … I’ve kept the lid on taxes.”
Astorino replied that Spano was “living in another world. I don’t know what planet he is on.”
Spano defended his administration’s response to both the ongoing fiscal crisis at the Westchester Medical Center and the spring strike by drivers at Liberty Bus Lines, which shut down Bee-Line bus service for nearly two months.
On the Medical Center, Spano said he inherited a poorly-run facility riddled with patronage appointments and has worked to improve its management and provide the fiscal assistance it needs to stay open.
Spano, as he has since the earliest days of the bus strike, blamed the drivers’ union for the strike and said his widely-criticized decision to travel to China was proper. The trip, which had been planned for weeks, was necessary to promote economic development and help Pace University set up operations in China.
Astorino said both issues demonstrated Spano’s poor leadership. The Spano needs to accept a greater share of the responsibility for the medical center’s financial crisis and be more forthcoming about how the facility will be turned around, he argued.
Both candidates are scheduled to debate again at 8 p.m. today at Pace University in White Plains.“