It’s not under the couch. It’s not under the mattress. It’s not in the bank and it’s surely not in the budget. So, where is Nassau County’s money?
Three battles are currently brewing across Nassau regarding that very question. The first involves a stalemate between County Executive Ed Mangano and state Assembly Deputy Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) over community program funding. The second entails looming layoffs that ignited the scuffle between Mangano and Nassau’s public employee unions. Then there’s the proposal to borrow $400 million to rebuild the aging Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum—a move proponents say is needed to keep the Islanders, Long Island’s only professional sports franchise.
The debates come in the wake of the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), a state-appointed watchdog, declaring the county was in a fiscal crisis in March, making itself the final say on budgetary issues and mandating a wage freeze. Akin to the similarly draconian legislative redistricting battle currently unfolding between county Republicans and Democrats, some aspects of Nassau’s money wars will be waged in court, while others are more of a cold war.
“If they want to talk to me I’ll talk,” Hooper tells the Press in a phone interview from Albany during the marathon week of last-minute business before the state legislative session comes to a close. “I’m willing to listen.”
At issue is Hooper’s holding up two tax extensions that would bring in more than $300 million in sales and motel tax revenue to Nassau County because she feels minority districts like hers have gotten an unfair share of that funding, as well as an unequal share of cuts to youth groups and other community programs. Mangano has said another state bill also being held up—to authorize an additional 50 red light cameras—would generate revenue to fund the youth groups.
Hooper, who has proposed her own version of the funding legislation, says Mangano has not reached out to her to negotiate, but a Mangano spokesman says Hooper is playing a dangerous game.
“Assemblywoman Hooper’s legislation would result in a property tax increase for residents as it would direct monies away from the county to her specific Assembly District,” said Brian Nevin, Mangano’s aide, in a statement. “Simply put, the bill pits one community against another.”
Without the sales tax revenue secured before the state Legislature goes on break June 20, the county will once again plunge deeper into the red. But Hooper, the dean of LI’s Assembly delegation, said she has received calls from her Nassau constituents and other lawmakers supporting her efforts.
But she still “has not received any calls from the administration.” For now, Hooper says she is “just waiting.”
MANGANO VS. THE UNIONS
The county executive announced plans this week that he says will save $32 million annually from the county payroll—a proposal that includes 130 layoffs, early retirement packages, redeploying more than 100 police from desk jobs and special units to patrol, among other cost-cutting measures.
Jerry Laricchiuta, president of Nassau Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 830, recalls stressing the idea of allowing employees the option of taking early retirements to then-County Executive Tom Suozzi when he and other union leaders negotiated a three-year concession plan after the recession first hit.
“Why don’t you try to get people out on their own?” he reiterates now.
According to Laricchiuta, it worked. In 2009, 363 CSEA members entered into early retirement, most of which he says were the highest earners. But this time around only 54 members will do the same, although that number could rise before the offer expires in a week.
“Our goal has been to share the burden,” Mangano said during a hastily called June 13 press conference regarding the slashes. “If everyone gave a little, no one would give a lot.”
Laricchiuta, who filed suit along with Nassau’s four other unions against the county and NIFA to block the wage freeze, is frustrated with the cuts. The last time CSEA saw layoffs was 1992.
“I think we shook the tree too many times…not everyone that is eligible to retire can retire,” he tells the Press. “Everyone is full of crap and everyone is playing politics.”
Upon unveiling his layoff plan, Mangano boasted: “Nassau County is now operating with the lowest level workforce since the 1950s.”
Yet county union leaders, who groan when asked about that comment, say this is not 1950.
“He’s taking pride in this,” says James Carver, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association (PBA), which represents the county’s patrol officers. “When we had maybe half the amount of people…you didn’t have malls, gangs, the cars. Industry has grown here, residents have grown…everything has grown.”
Nassau police aren’t facing layoffs now, but Mangano has said another wave of county job cuts is coming. Meanwhile, the public could feel an immediate impact from some of the police changes. Problem Orientated Policing Unit officers, who focus on quality of life issues and meet civic leaders, will suffer some of the most dramatic cuts—from four to one in each of the eight precincts, with the workload being spread around each stationhouse. Mangano’s proposal to close a police precinct is still being studied.
“All the unions are at a point we can’t give anymore,” says Carver. “The problem just doesn’t seem to go away.”
Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) said of the layoffs: “It is very unfortunate, but it’s the only alternative to raising taxes.” The plan is expected to be voted on at a special meeting June 28 and will likely pass the GOP-led legislature.
Setting the stage for the latest in a series of contentious legislative meetings, Minority Leader Diane Yatauro (D-Glen Cove) countered: “Any layoff of county workers is Mr. Mangano’s doing. He bears the responsibility for managing the budget, and he has done a poor job since his first week in office.”
While the Mangano administration lays off workers and battles state lawmakers over funding cuts, it also wants to borrow more money to build a new sports arena.
Mangano and Islanders owner Charles Wang recently announced a plan to hold an Aug. 1 referendum seeking taxpayer approval to float bonds to pay for constructing the coliseum’s replacement. But questions have arisen that the coliseum redevelopment—which includes a proposed minor league baseball park nearby—could be more than double the $400 million that Mangano estimates it will cost.
“If you borrow $400 million over 30 years, the interest will bring that number to $878 million,” says Steve Antonio, executive director of the Office of Legislative Budget Review. His analysis indicates the county would be paying $29 million back each year for 30 years, of which county residents will pay $58 per household.
The problem, Antonio explains, is that details are still unclear regarding a plan for the Islanders to reimburse the county for the coliseum debt. And according to sources within the County Comptroller’s office, there have been fears that Mangano’s $400 million construction cost was underestimated. Sources also complain there has been no economic survey done to determine the total cost.
Though few would argue it wouldn’t be devastating if the Islanders left LI when their lease expires in 2015, it is less a question of whether to rebuild than how the plan is unfolding.
“You increase sales tax, you create jobs which lead to personal income taxes and you create long-term jobs,” says Desmond Ryan, the executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a lobbying group for developers.
The group supports a new coliseum and proposed ballpark but wants to see Mangano open the remaining land on the area known as Mitchell Field to bidders.
So far, no dice.
One county official, who would “never want to say this publicly,” conceded that maybe “it’s time to raise county taxes. They are the lowest ones after all.”