Editorial: Nassau land deal reeks of politics

Edward Mangano, right, is shown at his legislative Edward Mangano, right, is shown at his legislative office with campaign manager Rob Walker, left, after he won the Nassau County executive election in 2009. Photo Credit: Michael E. Ach

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Nassau County's plan to buy about two-thirds of an acre in Bethpage from a friend of County Executive Edward Mangano for $800,000 -- to build a "cultural and educational center" celebrating local agricultural history -- is an astonishing piece of crony politics. It's unethical, unaffordable and unwise.

The land is the site of the closed Emil's Garden Center, owned by Frank Camerlengo, Nassau's deputy parks commissioner. He served with Mangano on the Bethpage Chamber of Commerce, and was hired for the parks job after Mangano was elected county executive in 2009. Camerlengo recently achieved notoriety as one of nine Mangano appointees who got raises this year while Nassau union employees have endured a wage freeze. His pay went from $99,000 to $125,000 a year.

Meanwhile, Camerlengo, his family and business have given Mangano at least $10,000 in political contributions since 2009. Yet Camerlengo owes about $94,000 in 2012 and 2013 property taxes and about $400,000 on a foreclosed mortgage on the land. Instead of donating money to Mangano, he should have used that cash to pay his taxes, including those he owes to the county that pays his salary. Or, perhaps, he could have paid the mortgage on the property he's trying to unload on Nassau taxpayers.

In a process that has been hurried and secretive, county officials pitching this purchase did not initially disclose Camerlengo's role as a political appointee in the Mangano administration. That fact was revealed when county planning commission Vice Chairman Marty Glennon confronted Deputy County Executive Charles Theofan at an April 10 meeting.

The nursery site is a terrible location for an agricultural educational center. It's a small, odd-shaped tract in a residential neighborhood on busy Stewart Avenue. It is a great location to build single-family homes, and this spot is zoned to hold four houses. County administrators claim neighbors don't want homes built there, though there's not much sign of such opposition.

Most of us would like a park next door, but this sounds like a ruse to sell the deal. And think of the inside-out logic. Is Mangano making the argument that single-family homes -- the only use of land generally considered acceptable to the public in the Town of Oyster Bay -- are now objectionable, too?

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Even assuming the bizarre notion that an agricultural-history museum at this spot is a good idea, there's no money to build, staff or maintain it. While the purchase would be financed from a dedicated open-space fund, money from that pot can't be used to demolish buildings, build new ones or run the facility. And there's not even a semblance of an actual plan to make the project happen. County officials say they will issue a request for proposals to see what ideas "are out there" once the purchase goes through.

All the while, Nassau has slashed funding to existing efforts that support and celebrate agriculture, including Old Bethpage Village Restoration and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. The only connection this deal would have to agriculture is that both carry the odor of manure.

Beyond all that, is the property worth as much as $800,000? The land can remain in commercial use only as a nursery. Otherwise, it's residential, according to the county's own appraisals. Are these one-sixth-acre lots worth $200,000 apiece? That should be for private buyers to say. And taking the property off the tax rolls would reduce revenue for the county and the school district.

The county planning commission meets on May 1 for public comment on this deal. Hopefully, commenters will be numerous, and furious, and persuade the commission to stop it. If the commission doesn't, then the Nassau legislature and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority board must protect the taxpayers from this bad deal.

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