To understand why Thomas Suozzi is the right man to lead Nassau County into the future, consider the past. Suozzi, a Democrat, became county executive in 2002, replacing Thomas Gulotta, the Republican whose 14-year tenure ran the county into the ground. Nassau's books were a disaster, and even a $100-million bailout from Albany and the creation of a state control board to oversee county finances didn't turn things around. Borrowing was out of control and cronyism was the determining factor behind decision making. Operations of the county were faltering, services failing, confidence crumbling. Perhaps worst of all, there was a sense that the days of greatness were in the past for America's earliest and wealthiest suburb.
Into this stepped Suozzi. Enthusiastic and energetic, he picked talented, professional managers. He attacked Nassau's financial problems with a property tax increase that was critically necessary, but he also streamlined operations, restored competence and created a plan to slow the annual glut of borrowing.
Beyond the nuts and bolts, Suozzi had a plan for Nassau that went beyond the stale, fearful mantras that froze it in the Eisenhower era. His plan encompassed transit-oriented housing and downtowns that young adults could love and afford.
But Suozzi's success went to his head, and his enthusiasm, once so focused on steering Nassau, wandered to a failed 2006 run for governor. His look beyond the county's borders still racked up significant successes, however: He chaired the state commission that first proposed a property tax cap, and persuaded Albany to cap the share of Medicaid that had been bleeding counties around the state.
Toward the end of his second term, Suozzi faced a worldwide financial meltdown that crushed tax revenues, in a region that feeds off Wall Street. This led to more borrowing than Suozzi initially promised, and demands from the Nassau Interim Finance Authority to find more recurring revenue. He gained passage of a home energy tax -- Nassau was the only county in the region without one -- that would have raised about $40 million per year to close the gap.
Enter Edward Mangano, a Republican county legislator who, campaigning against that energy tax in 2009, beat Suozzi, who ran a lackadaisical campaign. The margin was 386 votes.
Mangano inherited this difficult financial picture and made it worse by signing, on his first day in office, a repeal of the energy tax. Without it, Mangano's first budget was out of balance, and that led NIFA to once again put the county under state controls and to agree to Mangano's request to freeze wages.
Mangano's term has brought mixed results. His greatest success has been the privatization of Nassau's bus system, which saved the county about $30 million per year. His team's response to superstorm Sandy has largely met with approval, although questions of whether favoritism was a factor in awarding recovery contracts are still unanswered.
But a hard look at what the Mangano campaign trumpets as his major achievements shows they aren't accomplishments at all. Mangano's top trump card is four years with no property tax increases. But county fees have exploded. Certain costs for filing paperwork quadrupled, the charge for ambulance service doubled and fees for some children's rec programs rose 150 percent.
Mangano also touts a reduction in borrowing since he took over, but that's disingenuous. It's down only because the county legislature, NIFA and the State Legislature thwarted his attempts to borrow hundreds of millions more.
Then there is the assessment system. Mangano did eliminate the county's responsibility for overpayments of property taxes to school districts and other municipalities, known as the "county guarantee," by settling grievances before the tax roll was set. Doing so saved Nassau $60 million over the past two years, but it shifted the tax burden toward owners who didn't grieve, increasing their share of school taxes. That was more costly to those homeowners than any increase in county taxes might have been.
He also froze assessments at 2010 values, knowing that they were off and getting less accurate as the recession dragged values down. Mangano says he sees grieving as a way to get the values accurate. That means taxpayers, rather than getting a fair assessment from the county, are mostly getting them by using tax certiorari lawyers, who take a large bite out of any reduction homeowners might see. That's not fixing the assessment system; it's refusing to even try.
And nothing has yet been done to address commercial tax refunds, costing the county $70 million annually. The county owes more than $300 million in refunds to overcharged property owners, and the figure is mounting constantly.
Mangano seems incapable of presenting a budget that doesn't need smoke and mirrors to balance. His latest attempt to come to a contract agreement with county police to lift the NIFA-imposed wage freeze would repay the cops every penny the freeze saved.
In almost no case has Mangano made significant progress to corral the county's major problems, nor has he shared a compelling agenda for Nassau's growth. Suozzi's plan for the county remains compelling: modern, enjoyable, walkable destinations near select transit centers, suburban elsewhere, affordable for our children and grand children.
Nassau can't regain its past glory as the nation's premier suburb when its finances are still desperate and there's no visionary leadership. After he left office, Suozzi worked as an investment banker and a consultant to MSG Varsity, the high school sports initiative of Cablevision, the corporate parent of Newsday. He now works as an attorney.
Suozzi says his defeats humbled him, and time in the private sector taught him to listen and collaborate. He's acquired maturity and wisdom, and a palpable commitment to finish the job he started.
Newsday endorses Suozzi.