Managing in a Time of Crisis
“This county has been pillaged with bad deals for the taxpayer,” Mangano tells the Press. “We have been fixing them.
That’s the real story, and because I’ve been fixing them and stepping on a lot of toes, this is why you get all this guff in the paper. Everyone’s nervous politically and governmentally that we’re actually doing this the right way. And that’s what’s happening. And some want to stick their fingers in it and slow it down for the special interests so they make more money. Well, the taxpayers can’t afford it. Not on my watch. We’ve governed this county correctly in 2010 and we’re going to do it in ’11, ’12, ’13 and beyond, if the people of Nassau County will have me.”
A prominent Democrat with intimate knowledge of the budget battles in the Suozzi years begged to differ—and asked not to be identified due to his continuing dealings with the current administration.
“The problem with the county is not some big ideological issue,” this person tells the Press. “It’s about the day-to-day blocking and tackling and managing of a $2.6 billion enterprise that’s not being managed by anybody right now! It’s a giant fucking operation that nobody is running! And it has to be run on a day-to-day basis and it’s not being run on a day-to-day basis.”
The view from the previous administration is that Suozzi would have been in better shape fiscally for 2011: first, sales tax revenue came in $50 million more than was budgeted for 2010; he would have had $40 million from the home energy tax and $20 million from the red light camera program going forward. The Mangano administration counters that the county executive has taken steps to cover those shortfalls and expects to close the $350-million budget deficit.
“This is the worst the county has ever been,” says Schmitt. “The level of spending in the county is unsustainable. So, let’s start cutting it. I’m not cavalier about this. It’s going to be hard, and there’s going to be a lot of pain. And it will affect a lot of people. But we don’t have the money.”
Finding agreement on where the money will come from is daunting.
As for labor cost savings, Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, said that the county executive had been talking to the public unions “for quite a while to come up with a reasonable plan that would help the county structurally.” But the two sides are far apart from coming up with the $60 million Mangano says he wants from them in give-backs. The public employees unions may have managed to cough up $25 million, some labor leaders say, but that number is subject to change.
Still, Laricchiuta does not want to see NIFA in charge of the county’s finances, given that its oversight could mean further wage freezes and possible contract abrogation.
“No county executive can claim success if they’re working under a control board,” Laricchiuta tells the Press. “But I don’t think he’s been given enough time. The guy’s been the county executive for only 11 to 12 months. He inherited a huge deficit. And he’s been working with the unions, although the messages coming out of his office have been a little confusing.
“You get a different message every day,” he says. “I really do believe that in his heart he would like to solve this peacefully and work together with labor.”
Laricchiuta mentions that Mangano has reduced the workforce to the lowest it’s been since the 1950s. “We can’t cut more there. So where else you cutting? The bottom line is you gotta raise revenue.”
Schmitt says that raising property taxes is “off the table” even though that’s what he believes the Democrats want. “They want a tax increase, that’s the bottom line. That’s what they would do.”
But James Carver, the president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents police officers, says there should be a mixed approach.
“You cannot solve this whole thing by labor savings alone,” Carver says. “There’s got to be a combination. Suozzi had the right idea… And trust me, we all hated to agree with Suozzi on this, but he had the right idea. You had to have savings for a few years. You had to have recurring revenue to get us out of this economic downturn until you come back up again.”
So far, Mangano’s efforts to extract more concessions from labor have not borne fruit.
Recently, his office announced that he had made improvements to the county’s assessment system, one of his campaign promises. It didn’t look so promising back in October when an embarrassing story broke that the county’s historic courthouse, where the lawmakers have their offices, was put on the tax roll by mistake, costing the county $1.3 million to refund the Garden City school district. It also cost Nassau Assessor Ted Jankowski, a Suozzi holdover, his job.
But the error actually occurred in 2008 on the watch of Harvey Levinson, a Democrat who was the last to be elected before the job became an appointed position. The culprit reportedly was a Republican “party hack,” according to a former Suozzi official who asked to be anonymous, and that sparked rumors among Nassau insiders that Jankowski was “scapegoated.”
Mangano has made reforming the assessment system “a hallmark” of his administration, because it costs the county some $100 million in refunds annually. Critics noted that some of the people Mangano appointed to his Assessment Review Team (ART), which released a report last month touting his efforts, were from the same firms that benefit from challenging the too-high property tax assessments. “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” said one former Nassau County government insider.
The ART announced recently that it had gone through 110,000 grievances filed in 2010. But is that enough?
“At the end of the day, you want values on the property that people can have faith in,” says former Nassau County Deputy Assessor Tony Brita. “If they got through all the challenges, that’s great, but does that really improve people’s confidence in the values being placed on the properties? In all fairness to Mangano, I don’t think this is something that can get fixed in 12 months. It will take a good three to five years of concerted effort in order to get this fixed, and that’s if everything goes according to plan. Firing Ted was a big mistake. He was the most experienced assessor that the county had in at least 20 years.”
Asked to comment on Jankowski’s departure, Majority Leader Schmitt says the former assessor “was a boob.” He insists that the county has made great strides in reforming the assessment system but he knows there’s still a lot of work to be done. One estimate is that there is a potential $250 million backlog in tax assessment challenges. It’s a figure like that that gives NIFA board members something to mull over.
Mangano’s allies see a different picture.
“So far in the first year, Ed’s shown he has what it takes to manage out of the fiscal crisis he inherited,” says Santino, the Nassau GOP spokesman. “He has already done a tremendous job tackling the county’s fiscal problems and the deficit. He’s got more work to do, but again these are problems that he inherited from Suozzi and the Democrats.”
“Forget the politics,” says Schmitt. “He’s done some very good things in the last 11 months and he gets absolutely no credit for it. I would give him high marks for cutting the budget. I would give him high marks for constantly being innovative in trying to jumpstart our local economy.”
Nassau residents will be paying close attention to see whether he makes the grade a year from now, and whether he sinks or swims—because ultimately it’s the county taxpayers who will be taking the plunge along with him.