Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and challenger Thomas Suozzi face major issues that have arisen since their last race in 2009, including growing county debt, the need for development projects to attract young people and still widespread damage from superstorm Sandy.
Public policy experts, civic leaders and others say Sandy last fall and the post-recession economy are driving new issues to the forefront.
While issues including taxes and the county's long-running budget problems "haven't changed very much since 2009, the backdrop has in big ways that could have an impact on the race as much as any particular policy issue," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies.
Mangano, a Republican, beat Suozzi, a two-term Democratic incumbent, by 386 votes in 2009. The election year was marked by the toppling of incumbents across the nation due to the rise of the tea party and frustration over President Barack Obama's handling of the economy and his push to overhaul health care.
"The county was just entering into the Great Recession. People were frightened seeing the value of their homes drop relative to taxes they were paying," Levy said. "It was a very volatile landscape for an incumbent."
Nancy Rosenthal, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Nassau County, said voters who have contacted the group are eager to learn Mangano's and Suozzi's positions on Sandy recovery efforts -- including the more than $700 million in repairs needed at the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant and the impact that storm-damaged properties will have on property tax revenues.
"Superstorm Sandy brought forth a number of issues that weren't in the forefront in 2009," Rosenthal said.
"The sewage treatment center is a very huge concern; the power grid is a huge concern -- so many people were left without power," Rosenthal said. "And Sandy has brought into focus the [property tax] assessment situation -- we still don't know what it will mean in terms of the county's finances."
These are among the key issues that have become prominent since the 2009 campaign:
In new TV campaign ads, Mangano and Suozzi are attacking each other for their handling of county finances -- and each is focusing on the county's multimillion-dollar debt.
The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state monitoring board in control of the county's finances, has expressed concern about borrowing to pay operating expenses such as tax refunds, termination pay and judgments and settlements.
Suozzi has produced two television ads, along with mailers and a website, that say Mangano increased the county's debt to $3.524 billion since taking office in 2010. In one Suozzi ad, children attempt unsuccessfully to count up to 2 billion -- the amount of new debt Suozzi says has accumulated under Mangano.
Suozzi says he reduced debt by $255 million from 2002 to 2009, to $2.958 billion. As evidence, he cites official statements from the county treasurer used for bond offerings.
Mangano says in a television ad he has reduced county debt by $2.4 million, to about $3 billion. He says Suozzi increased Nassau's debt by $402 million to $3.45 billion over two terms, citing audited year-end financial reports.
Suozzi said in an interview that Mangano's tally of current debt leaves out the estimated $335 million Nassau has in potential liability for property tax refunds and $110 million borrowed from the state to cover pensions of county employees.
"My charges regarding his excessive debt, his poor fiscal management, and his other failures are confirmed by outside independent sources," Suozzi said.
Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin called Suozzi's statements "lies from a desperate" candidate. "Our numbers are year-end audited numbers from the county independent auditor Deloitte," he said, referring to the financial consulting and auditing firm.
Rosenthal said the barrage of conflicting numbers may cause voters to tune out.
"Voters and citizens are cautious about how numbers are presented," Rosenthal said. "They may believe that each side is going to massage the numbers to look favorably to make their point."
Levy said Suozzi faces a challenge in convincing voters that Mangano's level of borrowing will burden future generations of taxpayers.
"Mangano has the easier, more 'sound-biteable' argument to make," Levy said of Mangano's pitch that he has not raised taxes while in office -- and that Suozzi raised property taxes twice, in 2003 and 2009.
"Suozzi's [argument] is a little more complicated," Levy said. "He is asking people to look beyond their present situation and think about how this [borrowing] will play out in the future."
Mangano is touting his role in the $229 million plan to overhaul Nassau Coliseum and build a retail, sports and entertainment venue at the site.
"Nassau County has an opportunity to create high-paying jobs at the Coliseum property," said Nevin, noting the prospect of high-tech companies locating on the 77 acres surrounding the arena.
Suozzi has called the plan "not ambitious enough" because it fails to link nearby attractions, which include Hofstra University and Museum Row. "This whole area needs to be tied together as a destination point," Suozzi said in a debate before the Sept. 10 Democratic county executive primary.
Mangano and Suozzi also are backing plans to spur downtown revitalizations they say could attract new businesses and keep young professionals from leaving the county.
The initiatives come as Nassau continues to struggle to recover from the recession. While the county unemployment rate had declined by June to 6 percent, compared to 7.3 percent a year earlier, the foreclosure rate in Nassau is 6 percent, twice the national level.
Although many along Nassau's South Shore are rebuilding, property values there have dropped by 18.7 percent compared to last year due to damage from superstorm Sandy, according to a recent study by appraiser Miller Samuel and real estate firm Douglas Elliman.
Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, which will host a debate between Suozzi and Mangano on Oct. 29, said voters and business leaders want to hear more specifics about their "vision" for the county.
"They both need to talk about where Nassau County is going," Law said. "We're getting older, we're losing our young people, we're a high-cost area to do business. What can we be doing to retain both businesses and our young people, while increasing the diversity of our housing supply?"
The issue is expected to come up when the New York League of Conservation Voters, a Manhattan-based environmental advocacy group, hosts a county executive debate at Hofstra on Oct. 2. League spokesman Dan Hendrick said "revitalizing downtown areas" will be a prominent subject.
"It's not just an economic issue -- creating transit-oriented development is a sustainability issue," Hendrick said.
One of the most expensive projects will be the repair of the Bay Park Sewage Plant, which was damaged extensively.
Mangano in June asked the county legislature to approve $722 million in borrowing to fix the plant, which serves some 500,000 county residents. Mangano says he expects 90 percent of the costs to be covered by federal disaster funding.
Democratic lawmakers have approved only half of Mangano's request, saying additional oversight measures are necessary to ensure the money is spent properly and work is completed on time.
Before the storm, Mangano had sought to privatize Nassau's sewage treatment system. He put the proposal on hold in February, saying the plan could wait until the Bay Park and Long Beach treatment plants are repaired.
Nevin said Mangano "is focused on making Nassau County stronger in this post-Hurricane Sandy world."
Suozzi said Mangano should have put forward a plan to repair Bay Park in the first three months of the year. Suozzi said he would tackle the issue immediately if elected.
"The sewers must be fixed," Suozzi said. "It's going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars . . . There has to be a credible plan that people can trust, that is laid out and discussed in public for people to support."Hendrick said Bay Park represents a "legacy" of environmental and fiscal issues the candidates must address.
"This is a plant that had been running on an emergency generator as its main source of power before Sandy," Hendrick said. "It was already on shaky ground for months on end. . . . Ultimately, the county needs to figure out how to run it [and] who will run it. There's a legacy of issues there that go beyond repairing the plant."