Westchester County's new leader diverts airport from privatization path

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A plan to privatize Westchester County’s airport is in a holding pattern as County Executive George Latimer calls for his own aviation blueprint.

Latimer announced last week that the county will adopt a master plan for the municipal airport in White Plains, N.Y., by mid-July and asked the board of legislators to review previous privatization proposals pitched by the former county executive, Rob Astorino.

Latimer, a Democrat, ousted Republican Astorino in November's county election, gathering 57% of the vote.

The county legislature rejected a $140 million public-private partnership proposal from Oak Tree Capital in 2016 and last year lawmakers took no action on another $595 million P3 plan put together by Macquarie Development.

“We are laying out a process, without presuming what the final product will be, that results in a combination of citizen input, legislative discussion, executive branch review, input from professionals who run the airport and ultimately public policy that is set by my office and the board of legislators,” said Latimer in a statement. “We have a responsibility to get to the best public policy with public input.”

Latimer said the master plan must be submitted by July 15 in order to keep a $1.3 million Federal Aviation Administration grant and to avoid losing future FAA grants. A community meeting on the master plan is scheduled for June 6.

He said he hopes his administration will meet with the county legislature by mid-October to “jointly decide” on whether a master airport plan should be included in the county’s 2019 budget to be submitted in November.

Astorino said last November shortly after losing his reelection bid that the winning P3 bid he selected from Macquarie would net the county $1.1 billion over the course of a 40-year lease. The county would receive $300 million upfront under terms of the lease and in future years would receive $6.5 million annually.

The plan also would also involve Macquarie reimbursing the county $674 million for police costs over the course of the 40 years and committing $550 million for capital improvements.

S&P Global Ratings revised the outlook on Westchester County's AAA rating to negative from stable in November, citing a reluctance to establish permanent revenue streams and noting that the county's executive budget assumed proceeds from an airport privatization without securing approval for it from county lawmakers. The county is rated Aa1 by Moody’s Investors Service and AAA by Fitch Ratings.

Westchester hired New York City-based financial consulting firm Frasca & Associates last year to assist with the operator search. Frasca Principal Ken Cushine said the firm is still involved with the county’s airport operator search, but could not comment about the process at this time.

The company has advised 17 P3 deals since its founding in 1997, including privatizations of Stewart International Airport in New Windsor, N.Y., and San Juan, Puerto Rico's Luis Muñoz Marín Airport.

Latimer is also planning to conduct a “thorough review” of airport operations including flight volume, noise, drainage, environmental impact, flight paths, curfews and parking. The airport, about 30 miles north of Manhattan, is served by United, American, JetBlue and Delta.

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