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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

For Nassau residents, the forecast is stimulus, with a chance of cash

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran gathers with supporters

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran gathers with supporters to announce she will seek a second term for county executive on Tuesday, May 11, 2021 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Looks like about 300,000 Nassau residents could be getting a bit of cash, courtesy of County Executive Laura Curran — and the county's anticipated share of 2021 federal stimulus money.

Who doesn't love a little cold, hard cash?

Does it matter, really, that it would come as Curran and county lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, seek reelection this year?

Or that the $100 million to fund Curran's proposed, Nassau County Homeowners Assistance Program might have been put toward something else, like, say, Nassau University Medical Center, which played an important role as a vaccination center during the coronavirus pandemic?

Federal rules allow cash payments to residents.

But according to the regulations, such payments are supposed to be tied somehow to burdens imposed by the pandemic.

The rules — about which states have challenged — also say stimulus money can't be used for tax relief, or economic development.

In Nassau, the county has a program to aid businesses, which were hard hit by shutdowns, limited capacity and other pandemic restrictions.

The county has another geared toward renters, for whom unpaid rent will come due as freezes on evictions end.

But cash payments directly to homeowners?

Under Curran's proposal, individual owners of houses, condominiums, apartments and other residential dwelling units would be eligible for cash payments of about $375.

When the program was announced last week, officials initially gave themselves a little wiggle room.

If Nassau couldn't use stimulus money for the payments, one spokesman said, the county would tap a different source: Proceeds from an unexpected rise in sales tax receipts.

On Friday, that changed.

"I think we're going to just stick with the stimulus money," county spokesman Mike Fricchione told Newsday.

The county hasn't checked in directly with the U.S. Treasury Department, officials said.

And as of yet, there's no timetable for when cash payments might go out.

Still, Nassau officials are confident that of their plan to give the payments to property owners who qualify for New York State's School Tax Relief Program, more commonly know as STAR, will work.

Households earning up to $500,000 qualify for the program, while the income threshold for an enhanced STAR benefit for property owners 65 and older with income of $88,050 or less.

During a news conference touting the cash payment plan, Curran noted, "Everyone knows that taxes on Long Island are high … "

She also said she hoped that residents would spend their payments in the county's downtowns.

Left unclear, however, was exactly how cash payments tied to STAR, in a county with more than 1.3 million residents, would tie in with household losses suffered as a result of the pandemic.

And then there is the issue of whether Nassau should be spending the money in the first place.

Just last month, Adam Barsky, head of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state control board overseeing county finances, said stimulus money should not go toward new spending initiatives.

Barsky recommended instead that the county pay down the backlog of millions of dollars in property tax refunds, and outstanding large legal judgments.

On Friday, a NIFA spokesman referred Newsday to the control board's last report, which said essentially what Barsky said.

E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank, put things more bluntly.

"This is gross," McMahon said in an email. "Nassau residents are suckers if they see this as pro-taxpayer relief."

He continued: "What Curran has proposed is a vote-buying scheme, pure and simple. It would be a terrible idea anywhere but especially bad for Nassau … [which has] a structural deficit and excessive debts."

Curran, McMahon argued, "should be figuring ways to spend $100 million in a way that yields recurring longterm-savings for taxpayers, not a bald giveaway."

To which Fricchione responded:

"This is not about any election. County Executive Curran is doing everything possible to lessen the burden on the middle class and this is just one in an arsenal of support measures that the county executive is proposing. I think every [county] legislator recognizes that middle class burden and we are optimistic there is support."

Curran's fellow Democrats in the county legislature have voiced support for her proposal.

But it also must pass muster with the legislature's Republican majority.

Richard Nicolello, of New Hyde Park, the presiding officer, was away on Friday. Earlier, he had indicated support for direct cash payments, saying Curran had, "finally figured that the relief/stimulus funds should be provided to our overburdened taxpayers and small business owners."

And, given that lawmakers are up for election, too, and that Nassau Republicans, from Hempstead Town Councilman Bruce Blakeman, Curran's challenger, on down the line are making taxes a campaign issue, who wouldn't?

All of which means that cash payments, in about form or fashion, could be coming soon.

And what about Suffolk?

A spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone, came back only with this:

"We're currently in the process of drafting our county budget."

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