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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Silence greets Nassau issues

Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) speaks Sept. 16,

Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) speaks Sept. 16, 2014, in Seaford against Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's 2015 budget, which includes a property tax increase. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nobody was talking Wednesday. And that is not a good thing for Nassau residents.

For one, Legis. David Denenberg was still issuing statements through an attorney about allegations that he defrauded a client of $2 million at his former law firm by billing for work not done.

Yes, the allegations -- and note, the allegations, while disturbing, nonetheless are allegations -- pushed Denenberg, a Democrat from Merrick, to drop out of a State Senate race in which polls showed him leading his opponent, fellow lawmaker Michael Venditto, a Republican from Massapequa.

And, yes, maybe -- make that likely -- the timing was political. But Denenberg owes his constituency more than lawyerspeak, especially if -- as his lawyer Bruce Barket of Garden City said Tuesday -- he intends to stay in the county legislature.

Should he remain -- and there is precedent for doing so stretching back to the early 2000s, when two Democrats facing criminal charges in separate cases decided to hang on as long as they could -- Denenberg's effectiveness as a lawmaker likely would be muted.

And so would the legislature's minority Democratic caucus, which already is one short since Dems banned Legis. Ellen Birnbaum of Great Neck for remarks she made about the mostly black and Hispanic community of New Cassel.

Should Dems ban Denenberg, that would leave the caucus with three members -- two of whom would be needed to make a supermajority that would give Nassau approval to borrow money.

As it is, Republican lawmakers in Nassau are scouring for ways to eliminate County Executive Edward Mangano's proposed property tax increase from the budget.

The proposed increase, twinned with a flawed roll out of a school-zone speed camera program, have left many Nassau residents spitting mad.

But on the same day allegations against Denenberg were detailed in a lawsuit in Manhattan, the state's top court affirmed that Nassau had improperly assessed utilities for garbage taxes.

The decision by the Court of Appeals leaves the cash-strapped county liable for paying hundreds of millions of dollars back to the utilities.

How much? County documents estimate the liability at more than $200 million. Lawyers in the case put it higher, at some $500 million. Yes, if that figure stands, that would be a half-billion dollar debt.

What impact would either liability number have on the county, which already is planning to balance next year's budget on projections of tens of millions of dollars in revenue from red-light and speed-zone cameras to fund raises in recently approved union contracts?

The county, for a second day, remained silent on the issue. And Jon Kaiman, chairman of a state fiscal control board, didn't immediately respond to a query.

Perhaps the county's silence indicates that officials need more time to digest the court decision -- and craft a plan to pay it off, or, somehow negotiate some lower settlement with utilities that were charged for garbage collection at locations, such as telephone poles, that didn't need it.

Nassau doesn't appear to have enough money in its operating budget to handle even the lowest estimated cost stemming from the court ruling.

And should Nassau decide to borrow, the cost -- along with up to $800 million in planned borrowing through 2018 to cover successful tax assessment appeals, retirement payouts and other expenses -- could push Nassau's already heavy borrowing to more than $1 billion.

That would equate to more than a third of the entire county budget.

All of which leaves Nassau with yet another challenge -- and a second embattled legislator -- at a time when residents need everyone on deck.

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