“As county taxpayers, you will spend $54 million for welfare motels this year,” he told radio listeners on Feb. 17, 1988. “Under our HELP II project, you will save those county tax dollars.” His private nonprofit corporation had established a 200-unit HELP I facility in Brooklyn. Cuomo’s mission was to house homeless mothers and their children and remove them from welfare by providing training for mothers and day care for the young children.
Cuomo, son of then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, wanted his organization to construct apartments for the homeless in Greenburgh, Mount Pleasant, Mount Vernon and White Plains. He said that after 10 years, the HELP II facilities would be turned over to the local municipality to use at the local government’s discretion. (Westchester Rockland Newspapers, Feb. 18, 1988).
Mount Vernon and Greenburgh were the only governments that accepted the offer. At first, some in Greenburgh living near the site for WestHELP were dead set against it there. Nevertheless, the WestHELP facility for Greenburgh was built in 1990 on six acres of county owned land next to Westchester Community College. It was a huge success. Many women housed at WestHELP were trained at the college, enabling them to get jobs and get off welfare.
But about a year ago, County Executive Rob Astorino decided to close the facility because there was a decline in women and their children who needed it. The one in Mount Vernon remains.
Enter Ferncliff Manor
The present controversy is whether Greenburgh, which is 13 years into a 30-year lease from Westchester County, can rent it to Ferncliff Manor, a school in Yonkers that needs a new home for the severely developmentally disabled children it serves. I think it earned the right to do so.
Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner and the rest of his town board want Ferncliff to move to the Greenburgh site, not just because their town would be paid $500,000 in rent a year (less than half what they had been receiving from WestHELP), but also because they feel that Ferncliff Manor would be a noncontroversial fit in the surrounding neighborhood of family homes.
Several weeks ago, 10 of the 17 members of the Westchester Board of Legislators agreed to send to Gov. Andrew Cuomo a proposal by Astorino to give Ferncliff Manor a 50-year lease on the six-acre WestHELP location. Good for them. They want the state to expedite the review process on Ferncliff Manor’s application. If the state gives its approval, votes of 12 members of the county board would be required to seal the deal.
Twelve votes by the county board were needed back on Oct. 25, 1989, when I, as a columnist for the Gannett Westchester Rockland Newspapers, urged the board to approve County Executive Andrew O’Rourke’s proposal to lease the Greenburgh site to WestHELP for 10 years. Greenburgh would get the property for the next 30 years. I repeated what others were saying, that the place would be used for transitional housing for homeless families and “eventually as permanent housing for seniors, municipal workers or whoever Greenburgh chooses.”
The phrase “whoever Greenburgh chooses” was not included when the lease was written and executed on April 26, 1990. It stated that when Greenburgh received the site in 2001, it could lease it “for low and moderate income rental housing (including, but not limited to senior citizen and municipal employees) for 30 years.”
But when the date neared for the Greenburgh takeover on Sept. 18, 2001, Andrew Spano, who succeeded O’Rourke as county executive, asked Greenburgh to delay taking over because WestHELP was still needed. Greenburgh was to be paid $1.2 million a year as compensation.
A 'rigid' reading
Some current legislators interpret the clause in the 1990 agreement rigidly. They want the property to be used only for affordable housing, even though Greenburgh not only has provided such housing but is a very racially diverse town and is not on the list of predominantly white Westchester towns that were ordered by the federal government to build 750 homes open to all.
I side with those who say the Ferncliff Manor clients fit the “low and moderate income” category, and as such would be entitled to that ideal location. Better, the county government should amend the original agreement to allow for a wider use of the property, adding the severely developmentally disabled to the list. Society’s needs have changed since 1990.
Westchester government should remember the promise Andrew Cuomo made that helped Greenburgh accept the deal in the first place. Most of all, it should do so because the people served by Ferncliff Manor need a decent place. Also, it should do so because Westchester taxpayers saved millions when Greenburgh adopted WestHELP while other towns rejected it.
Another reason: County government occupies so much tax-exempt land in Greenburgh, outside of its six villages, placing burdens on the town’s property taxpayers.
People in the Fairview Fire District where the WestHELP property is located and where I live find that 32 percent of the property is exempt. It’s 12 percent for Hartsdale and 6.5 percent for Greenville (Edgemont). According to town assessment records, $39.2 million of nontaxable land lies in Fairview, $8.7 million in Hartsdale, and $5 million in Greenville.
OK school's move
County government has 34 tax-exempt sites in those areas. Westchester acquired the 364-acre Hartford Estate off Grasslands Road in 1957 for the bargain price of $750,000, about one fifth of its true value.
It was a great coup for the county, but property taxes were lost. Today that property is assessed at $17.9 million, which means its true value is more than half a billion dollars.
About 210 acres were dedicated to Westchester Community College, which has become a leading community college in the state. Like other tax-exempt properties, the college does pay sewer and refuse district charges.
The remaining 154 acres are undeveloped, except for the six acres for WestHELP and a parcel down the street that is used by students of Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).
Other large tax-exempt properties in Greenburgh also provide services for the wider Westchester community, and they include the New York School for the Deaf, the Hebrew Hospital Home, Ferncliff, Calvary and Mount Hope cemeteries, county and town parklands, dozens of public and religious schools, religious buildings and a number of group homes. The Greenburgh Police and the three fire departments respond to calls from those properties.
If the state gives Ferncliff Manor the approval it needs to transfer to the WestHELP site, the Board of Legislators should rapidly execute the move. If the state rejects the Ferncliff Manor application, Greenburgh’s Town Board should be given wider discretion in choosing a facility to occupy the property. It has earned that right.
Milton Hoffman is retired senior editor of The Journal News.