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Residents speak up on Nassau Coliseum plan

Nassau Deputy County Executive Rob Walker speaks during

Nassau Deputy County Executive Rob Walker speaks during the public hearing about the proposed Nassau Coliseum project at the East Meadow Library. (June 29, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County officials squared off with a skeptical and occasionally hostile audience Wednesday as they tried to sell a plan to publicly finance a new arena to replace the aging Nassau Coliseum.

Deputy County Executive Rob Walker was peppered with questions at the East Meadow Public Library on the timing of the Aug. 1 ballot referendum, the cost of the project and the risk of losing the Islanders when the team's lease expires in 2015.

The sparsely attended meeting was the first in a series of public information sessions on the proposal, which would allow the county to borrow up to $400 million to build a new hockey arena and a minor league baseball park at nearby Mitchel Field.

East Meadow resident Michael Turner argued the referendum should be moved back to Primary Day in September or Election Day in November to give the public more time to digest the plan and to avoid the cost of the special election, estimated at more than $2 million.

"This is a rush job," Turner said. "It's a multiyear bond issue and you are ramming it down our throats."

Walker cautioned that politics had derailed past attempts to build a new arena. "This has been the single most politicized issue for the past eight years," he said. "We asked for a stand-alone election to avoid the silly [political] season."

Islanders owner Charles Wang will pay for the election if the plan is approved by voters and clears the county legislature and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state oversight board that oversees the county's finances.

The proposal guarantees Nassau 11.5 percent of all revenue made inside the new Coliseum -- or a minimum of $14 million a year. County officials also expect a new arena will generate additional sales, entertainment and hotel taxes. The money will go into the county's general fund to pay off the debt service, which is expected to reach more than $800 million over the course of 30 years.

The plan is about more than just retaining the Islanders, Walker said. He contended a new arena would draw more musical acts, family shows and potentially high-profile events such as the NCAA finals.

"If done right," commercial business will prosper and residents will pay less ," Walker said.

Many residents, however, are dubious about the financial projections. "Someone needs to show me that these numbers are realistic," said Jose Ramos of East Meadow.

Art Feeney, of Seaford, said failing to act also would be costly. "Taxes will go up if we do nothing," Feeney said.

Republicans in the Nassau Legislature have hired their own consultant to study the revenue projections, while County Comptroller George Maragos will release his own analysis next month.

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