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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

In minutes, Nassau lawmakers blast $106 million hole in county budget

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran looks over her

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran looks over her 2022 budget proposal in her office on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

It took less than half an hour on Friday for Nassau’s legislature to riddle County Executive Laura Curran’s proposed budget with holes.

That $55 public safety fee tacked on to traffic tickets?

Blam.

It's out of there.

So is the $355 property verification fee, and all but $50 of Nassau's $300 mortgage recording fee.

Altogether, lawmakers, with Republicans voting for and Democrats — no fools, they, in an election year — abstaining, lightened Curran's revenue projections by some $106 million.

That ought to make the next few weeks interesting.

The county's charter says budgets should be balanced.

With revenues matching expenditures.

But, particularly in the 1990s, that didn't always happen.

One year, then-Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta, meeting with a group of Newsday writers, asked his budget director to place a copy of his proposed budget on a conference table.

It was an intimidating stack of computer printouts, almost a foot deep.

One writer — OK, it was me — flipped that monster over to look at the last line, which showed that proposed expenses far exceeded proposed revenues.

But that was before Nassau agreed to a financial control board.

And before the creation of the county's independent Office of Legislative Budget Review.

And well before a change in the charter mandated that lawmakers vote on tax increases before, rather than after Election Day.

Yes, for years, lawmakers and county executives would pass budgets, boast of them having no significant tax increases — only to increase property taxes in the weeks after the election.

The charter change was supposed to make the process more transparent.

Instead, it's made what's usually considered a boring process a lot more interesting.

This year could just top them all.

Move: Curran proposes payments of $375 to qualifying county residents.

Counter Move: The Republican majority in the legislature proposes significant cuts in fees that, ironically, had been put in place to plug holes in budgets of prior GOP administrations.

Move: Curran proposes millions of dollars in property tax cuts, spread over several years.

Counter Move: GOP stalls $375 payments, and moves to cut fees.

Will Curran sign the fee legislation?

Or will she veto it?

And how will her administration handle the fresh new holes in Curran's proposed budget?

Last week, in an attempt to forestall the Republicans' action, Curran proposed creating a committee to consider the best way to slowly rid residents of the meddlesome fees — one of which had been declared unconstitutional by a judge — while at the same time finding other sources of revenue to replace them.

That went nowhere during an emergency meeting on fees and other matters on Friday.

"We have an opportunity today to provide lasting financial relief to the taxpayer," Richard Nicolello, the Republican majority leader, said during the meeting.

"We are undoing what your side created," Kevan Abrahams, the Democratic minority leader, countered, "but we are doing it in a fiscally irresponsible way."

Nassau began assessing fees, and adding more and more of them under former GOP County Executive Edward Mangano, as a way of avoiding property tax increases.

The idea was that only those who, say, needed to record a mortgage or received a traffic ticket would pay them — making it, as one official noted years ago, "a user's fee."

But fees aren't supposed to amount to more than the cost of services — like recording a mortgage, or handling traffic offenses — which is why some court challenges have been successful.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Curran and lawmakers to pass a budget — which also will have to pass muster with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county's financial control board.

The deadline is midnight, Halloween.

That's nine days after the start of early voting on Oct. 23.

And two days before Nov. 2, Election Day.

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