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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Important questions for the Nassau Coliseum renovation

Artist's rendering of developer Bruce Ratner's plans for

Artist's rendering of developer Bruce Ratner's plans for the Nassau Coliseum site on May 2, 2013.

Nassau's Industrial Development Agency is slated to vote today on granting developer Bruce Ratner more than $4.4 million in tax breaks for rehabbing the county Coliseum.

The vote will come five days after a public hearing on the application -- which drew barbs from unions, upset that Ratner had yet to cobble out an agreement with them, and Uniondale residents, upset that Ratner is offering discount tickets and a promise of jobs rather than the community center residents wanted.

But there was one other critic in the ceremonial chambers of Nassau's executive and legislative building last Thursday -- a retired Nassau district court judge who raised fundamental questions on whether the application to the IDA, or Ratner's 34-year lease with the county, should be approved at all.

One man does not necessarily an obstacle make, especially on a project -- even one that was diminished in scale, even as Nassau grew desperate for revenue -- that is now on the fast track.

But given Nassau's recent tangled string of contracts -- such as the one at the center of corruption-related allegations against state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), and licenses such as the one tied up in bankruptcy proceedings with a private firm that built twin skating rinks on county property -- retired Judge Samuel Levine does make a point.

"The voters and real estate taxpayers . . . must be given all of the facts about the contract and leases for the Coliseum and surrounding land," Levine said during the hearing. He also raised a few questions, including whether the project should get any tax breaks at all.

The lease between Nassau and Ratner has been revised since his plan for the Coliseum and surrounding land was selected by County Executive Edward Mangano in 2013 over competing proposals.

But the legislative office of budget review never did an updated analysis -- because, an official said Monday, no lawmaker has asked for one.

And while a spokesman for County Comptroller George Maragos said Monday that his office had reviewed the revised lease, that review is not public.

In raising questions about how Nassau is handling the Coliseum upgrade, Levine made mention of a 1989 report by then-Nassau Attorney Denis Dillon on how the county mishandled the awarding of lucrative 99-year leases at Mitchel Field. In that report, Dillon -- who found no criminal wrongdoing -- estimated that Nassau lost more than $2 billion in potential revenue as a result.

The county did learn some lessons as a result. For example, the lease with Ratner runs 34 years, with options to expand; and the rent developers will pay for the Coliseum is supposed to rise as the property's value increases.

But Dillon's report made other, larger points. Among them, that Nassau ought to be both mindful and transparent in how it handles the peoples' property. He suggested such scrutiny be extended even to IDAs.

Why should the county continue keeping a privately leased Coliseum off the tax rolls?

Mangano said in an interview Monday that the deal would not have been possible, or financially viable, had the county required the developer to pay taxes on the Coliseum property.

He said, however, that he did anticipate that taxes -- or some payment in lieu of taxes -- would be paid on the second phase of the project, and that new revenue source would help Uniondale.

He also said he had talked to Ratner and believed that issues with the unions would be ironed out too -- although it remains to be seen if another contract requirement, the signing of a minor league hockey team, would be done by groundbreaking.

All vital information.

Which should keep on coming, as the project progresses.

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