Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's administration wants to spend $800,000 to buy an old nursery from one of its political appointees -- who just got a 26 percent raise during a union wage freeze.
The county has a tentative agreement with Deputy Parks Commissioner Frank Camerlengo to purchase his property on Stewart Avenue in Bethpage, where his family long ran Emil's Garden Center and now stores landscaping equipment.
Officials say they want to convert the site, a farm from the early 1900s, into a "cultural and educational center" celebrating local agricultural history.
Planning commissioners are considering the deal, but say they first want an opinion from the county ethics board, and a full explanation of how Nassau -- facing declining sales tax revenue, which may create a new budget deficit -- would fund it. Just last month, the county said financial constraints had forced it to delay a $700,000 plan to build a replica of a historic Old Bethpage Village Restoration home it had demolished.
On Friday, county officials said that the lots that compose the property -- one of which is in foreclosure, according to state court records -- would be purchased with money from Nassau's Environmental Bond Act. The funds, previously borrowed under voter-approved referendums, are typically set aside for open space preservation.
In recently pitching the deal to the planning commission, Deputy County Executive Charles Theofan said the county is paying below-market value for lots that otherwise could be subdivided for homes or continued as a commercial business, which residents oppose.
"Obviously, this is the county executive's neighborhood," Theofan said. "He's not going to permit anything to happen there that's not in the best interests of the community."
THE COMMISSIONER'S CONNECTION
Camerlengo was hired shortly after Mangano, a Bethpage Republican, took office in 2010. He had served on the Bethpage Chamber of Commerce board with Mangano and his wife, Linda. Camerlengo, his family and business have given Mangano more than $10,000 in political contributions since 2009.
Newsday reported in January that Camerlengo was one of nine Mangano appointees who received raises last year, at a time when the county's state fiscal control board kept a multiyear freeze on union wages. Camerlengo's pay hike was one of the largest: from $99,000 to $125,000, or 26 percent. Officials said his duties had increased as the parks department was consolidated.
Camerlengo couldn't be reached for comment. A woman who answered the door at the address that Camerlengo listed on his voter registration told a reporter that the land deal was "none of your business" and asked that it not be reported until "after it was done."
On a recent morning, Camerlengo's Bethpage property, which includes a home the family rents out, was fenced off and showed few signs of recent activity. Pieces of heavy equipment were parked in the gravel lot, where a small building still featured a banner supporting Republican Sen. John McCain's failed 2008 presidential bid.
Mangano spokeswoman Katie Grilli-Robles said Friday that "the community," not the administration, sought the deal.
"The county has acquired millions of dollars of property on the North Shore, [and] this environmental bond act acquisition preserves a historic property, which will result in a community garden similar to other bond projects," she said in a statement. "Since the owner is a county employee an ethics opinion was sought prior to finalizing the acquisition, which will preserve the property for future generations."
TURNING TO ETHICS PANEL
At the April 10 county planning commission meeting, Theofan admitted he didn't initially disclose Camerlengo's job in the Mangano administration when submitting the purchase for consideration.
"You can blame me for that," Theofan said when commission vice chair Marty Glennon, a Democrat, raised the issue. "I have nothing to hide here."
Glennon said he was "baffled" that the county didn't mention its ties to Camerlengo until asked at the second meeting that the deal was on the agenda: "I've got severe reservations about doing this until we can get an [ethics] opinion."
The planning commission left the public hearing on the proposed purchase open. If approved, the agreement would come before the county legislature, and, possibly, to the county's control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.
Planning Commissioner Jeff Greenfield said in an interview last week that Theofan proactively sought the ethics opinion, and that the deal seems like a good one for Bethpage.
"We're not raising taxes to buy this, we're not bonding for it. We have the money and this is the way money should be spent," Greenfield said. "The neighborhood wants this."
Mathew Rufrano, a Bethpage civic leader, also spoke in support of the deal. He said Camerlengo, a friend, "always had the best intentions" for neighbors.
"He always said that he wanted to make sure that this land was going to be his retirement, because he didn't have anything like a 401(k)," Rufrano told planning commissioners. "He wanted to make sure the property would be preserved."