Why not 'right-size' county government?

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano prepares for the

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano prepares for the 2013 State of the County speech at the Morelli Homeland Security Center in Bethpage. (March 12, 2013) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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County Executive Edward Mangano may be on to something with his idea of "right-sizing" the Nassau Coliseum. But why stop at an arena that, because of its age, condition and lack of upkeep, doesn't work anymore.

Here's a radical idea:

Why not "right-size" county government in Nassau and Suffolk instead? Make it smaller. Strip it down to essentials. Why not do away with both county legislatures? How about giving parks and roads to the towns and New York State?

County government was supersized after World War II, especially in Nassau, to serve politics as well as the people. The county level of government is significantly leaner in most other regions of the nation, and Connecticut eliminated county government in 1960.

Nassau's finances have been shaky since the 1980s; and the region, for decades, has been unable to address issues in a comprehensive manner.

What's happening now?

Mangano, in his State of the County message last week, offered no significant solutions for righting the county's fast-sinking fiscal ship. Meanwhile, in Suffolk, County Executive Steve Bellone turned the clock back a year in once again asking for suggestions on how to ease the deficit. He did the exact same thing when he first took office last January.

It must be frustrating for residents in both counties to see officials spinning, spinning and spinning more wheels in attempts get things under control.

There may be a way. And it would be radical, but it certainly would beat the prospect of Long Island's fortunes sinking to the depths of, say, Detroit.

Wow. It hurt just to type those words.

Rather than going around and around on temporary fixes or, as in Bellone's recent pact with police unions, kicking temporary but significantly increased costs down the line, perhaps it's time for some new thinking.

What about a concept called "localism," which would fit right in with Long Island's traditional love of exercising local control. What is localism? It's complicated, but the most recent and likely easiest to understand iteration is the movement to buy local foods and support local businesses under the theory that neighbors can best serve neighbors.

It could work with governments, too. Towns and villages, for example, which are closer, and more necessary to the day-to-day-lives of residents, could assume many of the duties now handled by county government.

Nassau and Suffolk exist primarily as conduits for funneling down state and federal funding. There's no reason they have to handle parks, policing or roadways. The Long Island of the 20th century made pretty good use of counties. But, as a result of an inability to deal with budget problems, the scope of services now is shrinking.

In Nassau, for example, the county has a backlog of property tax refund payments that ought to be in residents' hands. In Suffolk, as Bellone explained last week, the county wants to get out of the nursing home and health care center business.

Instead, watching county government, along with the scope and quality of services, shrink piecemeal, why not stop to rethink the whole shebang? Why not "right-size" with deliberation rather than desperation?

The alternative, of course, is that leadership in both counties digs deeper to find solutions that, in time, would elevate the state of Nassau and Suffolk counties rather than continue to sink them.

That, however, would mean officials concentrating more on the needs of people, rather than politics.