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Undressing The Emperor

A retrospective analysis of the past 16 years of Tom Suozzi


By Christopher Twarowski and Michael M. Martino Jr.


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Eight years as mayor of Glen Cove, eight years as Nassau County Executive. In stark contrast to Long Island’s lone daily newspaper’s recent resounding endorsement of Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi for what would be his third term as the county’s top elected official (an endorsement which failed to mention the nearly $200,000 in campaign contributions Newsday’s parent company Cablevision, its political action committee and owners, the Dolan family, have donated to his political aspirations since 2006, according to New York State [NYS] Board of Elections financial disclosure records), we at the Press thought we’d be a little more judgmental rather than hand out a free pass. While Suozzi has made no secret of his intentions for higher office—stating during a public debate against former NYS Gov. Eliot Spitzer during his failed bid in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary that he’d like to be president one day—do his past policies back up those ambitions? Or should Nassau’s newly renovated $60 million legislative complex and executive suite serve as his final, albeit ornate, political resting place? We thought we’d have a little fun with this. Enjoy!

Key

Two Thumbs Up = Presidential Material
One Thumb Up, One Thumb Midway = Senator Suozzi
Two Thumbs Midway = Gubernatorial Material
One Thumb Midway, One Thumb Down = Lieutenant Governor
Two Thumbs Down = County Executive
Index Finger (Pointing) = Go Back to Glen Cove

Property Taxes – Two Thumbs Down = County Executive

Suozzi’s public face as an administrator who holds the line on property taxes has become his calling card. His appointment to chairman of the NYS Commission on Property Tax Relief by disgraced former NYS Gov. Eliot Spitzer cemented him as the issue’s poster child. While it’s true that Suozzi hasn’t officially raised Nassau County property taxes for five years as county executive, according to the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority (NIFA)—the county’s nonpartisan state fiscal watchdog—the 2.5 percent Home Energy Tax Suozzi implemented earlier this year is the equivalent of a 4.9 percent property tax hike. And as necessary in the aftermath of former Republican County Executive Tom Gulotta’s administration as it may have been, few county residents can forget the more than 19 percent property tax hike Suozzi implemented upon first taking office. Eight years later, Nassau residents still own the dubious distinction of paying the second-highest property taxes in the nation.

Bond Rating – One Thumb Midway, One Thumb Down = Lieutenant Governor

It’s hard to imagine just how dire Nassau County’s financial condition was in the wake of the Gulotta administration. There was a nearly half-billion dollar budget gap. The tax grievance backlog was $400 million. Nassau’s bond rating was just shy of junk bond status.

The Suozzi administration has made huge leaps in resurrecting the county’s ratings—at least 13 bond upgrades in five years alone. But according to NIFA, the county still has a ways to go, and some of Suozzi’s recent budgetary practices, such as the near-depletion of Nassau’s “rainy day” reserves during “good times,” have jeopardized that progress. Despite its underlying wealth, the county remains an outlier, says NIFA’s May 28, 2009 report, which rated Nassau well below almost every other comparable county in the nation.

“Most ‘A’-rated counties are smaller and poorer; in fact, the only other large county that we could find that is rated as low as Nassau County is Wayne County, Michigan,” it charges.

Wayne County includes the city of Detroit.

Tax Certs – Two Thumbs Down = County Executive

Tax certioraris, or tax certs, as they’re called—the grievance process for property tax assessments—have been the bane of Nassau taxpayers for more than a decade, costing the county nearly $100 million annually.

The Suozzi administration has made great strides in dealing with the issue. Due to the county executive’s efforts, the tax cert backlog has plummeted from $400 million to $139 million. The average interest on refunds has also fallen substantially, from 7.3 percent to 1.8 percent under Suozzi’s guidance. The Suozzi administration was the first to budget tax cert payment obligations as operating expenses in the budget—the previous administration was borrowing as much as $125 million annually to fund tax cert payment obligations. And it was Suozzi who sought to revamp and streamline the assessment process, by appointing a new tax assessor earlier this year and ordering a forensic review of the entire system, “top to bottom.”

Yet Suozzi has merely scratched the surface. The county assessor’s analysis, released this May, details a system rife with dysfunction of unprecedented proportions. According to the report, residential appeals have averaged about 110,000 annually over the last six years—compared to fewer than 1,000 a year on average in New York City. Nassau has $1.2 billion in related outstanding debt. The county pays out almost $90 million annually in refunds, it found—83 percent of which go to commercial property owners and their tax representatives.

Watchdogs such as NIFA, the county Comptroller’s Office and Nassau’s independent Office of Legislative Budget Review (OLBR) have repeatedly denounced the Suozzi administration’s use of bond proceeds to pay for tax cert refunds—a necessary evil, argues the administration, in order to continue eating into the claims backlog. They’ve also been critical of Suozzi for under-budgeting the problem—$50 million for fiscal years 2011, 12 and 13, despite the historical price tag of $90 million annually—sparking concern that taxpayers could be saddled with an annual unbudgeted cost of $40 million, further adding to their future debt.

“How do you make that up?” Eric Naughton, director of OLBR, asked the Press earlier this month. “You have to borrow. So that puts more stress on future taxpayers.”

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