Levy: LI planning council dealt fatal blow

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy prior to a Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy prior to a meeting of the Long Island Business Development Council in Ronkonkoma. (June 14, 2011) Photo Credit: John Paraskevas

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After 46 years, regional planning on Long Island is near death.

Since April, the Long Island Regional Planning Council has been on life support after Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said his financially strapped county could not afford its $200,000 share of funding for this year.

Hoping Nassau's fiscal plight was temporary, Suffolk County continued paying its share, including the $135,000 salary of council Executive Director Michael White for all of 2011. However, since Nassau axed funding, White is working in Suffolk and focused almost entirely on Suffolk issues.

A week ago, Nassau officials informed Suffolk that they do not intend to put any money in the 2012 budget for the regional planning council. Without Nassau funding, Suffolk officials say they will not go it alone.

White, the council's executive director since 2007, said he will announce this week that he will exit in mid-July to join a local law firm and resume solid-waste management work.

"In these challenging budget times, I understand the circumstances," said White. "It's really about the money. When Nassau is laying off workers and making cuts to lifesaving services, those are difficult decisions that a public official has to make."

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Only last year, the council completed a new $750,000 master plan with strategies to sustain and reinvent Long Island through 2035. Further work to implement the study is likely to have to be picked up by others.

"Without the funding of a public entity, it doesn't function," White said of the council. "I'm very proud of the important work we've done for the region, and there's a great deal of work that can be taken forward. But now, it's going to have to fall to the counties and towns and all the stakeholders we've dealt with."

However, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said Nassau's decision essentially kills the council. "It's done," he said, "Their continued not chipping in is the nail in the coffin. We've made it clear: If they fold, we can't keep propping it up."

After meeting with White on Friday, Mangano said through a spokesman that he hoped White would remain "involved in guiding and shaping Long Island's future." He added that, "Actions like these [cuts in funding] are unfortunate yet necessary to hold the line on property taxes while balancing the county county's budget."

John Cameron, council chairman, still believes the council can carry on. He is scrambling behind the scenes to line up funding from other sources -- even if they provide enough money to keep the council operating at a reduced level. They include the Nassau Industrial Development Agency, which generates its own fees, and other municipal and private donors. Cameron hopes to have commitments in the next month -- in time for Suffolk to keep money in the 2012 budget.

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From its start in 1965, the bi-county partnership in planning has been an uneasy alliance -- in part because Nassau was an older, more built-out suburb while sprawling Suffolk was far less developed. In 2007, Democratic County Executives Thomas Suozzi and Levy, who has since switched parties, remade the Long Island Regional Planning Board into the planning council to make it more vital.

But Republican Mangano has shown less interest in planning. He has not filled the vacant post of Nassau's planning director and he recently relegated planning work to the county's public works agency.

Kevin Law, president and chief executive of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, said the council needs to be creative -- to look to towns, villages and foundations for money and seek new powers from the state to authorize large regionally important projects. "The challenges Long Island faces are not going away and we need to address them as a region," he said.

Cameron noted that the council has raised issues that local governments often sidestep, including diversity in housing, immigration and equity in school funding. But he acknowledges feeling like the Black Knight in the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," who says "It's just a flesh wound!" as various limbs are lopped off.

"Sometimes I feel like that," said Cameron. "But I'm determined we'll survive."

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