Newsday politics reporter Scott Eidler takes a look at Bruce Blakeman's first two years as Nassau County executive. Credit: Newsday

Republican Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman rode a red wave into office in November 2021, mixing opposition to pandemic mask mandates and vaccine requirements with less partisan pledges to tackle taxes, crime and the county's property assessment system.

Soon after his 2,146-vote win over incumbent Laura Curran, a Democrat, he said he would refuse to enforce the state's mask mandate as a new coronavirus variant tore through the region.

Halfway into his four-year term, Blakeman has struggled to make headway on major county challenges that were at the center of his campaign or that cropped up early in his administration. His pledge to "immediately cut taxes," to fix financial woes that have plagued Nassau University Medical Center and to correct a "broken" assessment system have taken a back seat to conservative culture wars targeting masks, migrants, transgender athletes and New York City crime, critics say. His appointment of political allies to key county posts, public battles with Democrats Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York Attorney General Letitia James, and reinstatement of signs with the county executive's name on county properties have raised questions over his role and its limits.

"He ran on trying to solve everyday problems of citizens, but he's been engaged in a high profile back-and-forth on migrants, on the governor staying out of our backyard, and COVID and all that, where he has no control over those things, or very little control," said Christopher Malone, an associate provost and professor of political science at Farmingdale State College. "He risks these expectation gaps, what's expected of him as a local politician and public servant compared with what he's delivering." 

Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence), presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, said Blakeman "is spending the appropriate amount of time on county issues. If you go and talk to the man you'll see that he's fully up to speed and very, very conversant with any issue you want to talk about. He'll shoot facts and figures at you like a computer. He knows what's going on."

Ron Gurrieri, president of Nassau's Civil Service Employees Association, Local 830, the county's largest public employee union, said he generally supports Blakeman's positions. "At times, he should put more attention to stuff that’s going on here closer to home," such as NUMC, Gurrieri added. "This hospital serves a large population.”

Richard Kessel, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state board that oversees the county's finances, said, "Not enough has been done to mitigate some of the challenges that the county has faced and continues to face."

"We’ve got a hospital that’s in crisis," Kessel added. “The assessment system continues to be broken and needs to be fixed. There are significant inequities that penalize a majority of the taxpayers, and until you achieve some kind of equity and fairness, the system hasn’t been fixed."

As Nassau's top elected official, Blakeman, 68, of Atlantic Beach, oversees a county with a $4.1 billion budget, more than 7,000 employees and dozens of departments with wide-ranging missions that include child protective services and foster care, maintaining roadways and parkland, and setting values for more than 425,000 properties on the tax roll. Blakeman's salary this year is $227,959, up $16,000 from his salary in 2022 and 2023.  

At his annual State of the County address March 6, he described his first two years as productive, with dips in major crime, upgrades to the county's bond ratings and to police infrastructure, settlements of years-old tax disputes and new contracts with major employee unions. His spokesman did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Blakeman has dismissed his critics. His ban on transgender girls competing on women's sports teams at county facilities, announced at a Feb. 22 news conference, "isn’t a partisan issue, this is a common-sense issue," he said. At a news conference in May touting a taxpayer-funded tourism ad that features him, he told reporters: “I’m not looking for another office. I love my job."

Joseph Cairo, chairman of the Nassau Republican Committee who recruited Blakeman for the county executive race, brushed off “any of the rumors that people are starting about him playing to the national scene." Blakeman is "a local elected official, he’s addressed local issues. He’s supportive of our candidates," Cairo said. 

“You know what his bottom line is? He's fighting for the suburbs,” Cairo said.

Property assessments dominated Blakeman's campaign as he accused Curran of conducting a “slipshod” and “negligent” reassessment of the tax rolls — the first in nearly a decade. 

WHAT HE SAID: “It’s broken, and we will fix it,” Blakeman said during a debate with Curran at Newsday studios in October 2021. He said he would order the next county comptroller to audit the assessment department. 

At his State of the County address, Blakeman said his administration "has gotten under the hood and made the assessment system more fair, more accurate, more transparent and more user friendly, and we are going to continue to improve.”

WHAT'S BEEN DONE: County Comptroller Elaine Phillips, a Republican, issued a report in 2023 that criticized Curran's reassessment and said it relied on outdated home sales and other flawed data. The report did not comment on the tax roll’s overall accuracy or suggest major reforms. Auditors recommended Nassau “develop a plan for keeping assessment rolls current.”

Blakeman has frozen the rolls for two consecutive years. Actual home values have risen much higher than the county’s property assessments, last updated in 2020. The county settles about 70% of tax grievances, pushing the tax burden onto residents who don’t challenge their assessments, tax experts have said.

Elected officials are often reluctant to update property values for fear of political backlash, said Larry Clark, a former director of strategic initiatives for the International Association of Assessing Officers.

“Certainly there will be some people who will see huge increases from what is currently on the books, and those people will complain, as is natural, and that’s why politicians don’t want to open it up,” said Clark, a longtime municipal assessor in Kansas.  

The assessment department under Blakeman has made a series of costly errors. In October 2022, assessors failed to apply a key exemption for 842 property owners, resulting in them being overtaxed by about $1.5 million. That year, the county also inadvertently taxed a New Hyde Park parish, sending the Diocese of Rockville Centre a $677,000 bill in error. In 2023, Nassau County undervalued 624 properties by $139 million and corrected the mistakes at the last minute, surprising hundreds of homeowners who had limited time to appeal.

WHAT HE SAID: His campaign website said, “Bruce Blakeman is running for Nassau County Executive with a plan to immediately cut taxes." Blakeman said the county should cut the property tax levy by $120 million. Curran had proposed a $70 million property tax cut.

“We need to get things back on track and put money back into our residents’ pockets. As your county executive, I’ll immediately cut taxes and stop the massive tax hikes that are killing the American dream," Blakeman said in an ad.

WHAT'S BEEN DONE: The tax levy has remained stable since Blakeman took office. He has argued that he achieved tax relief by eliminating scheduled tax hikes included in Curran's four-year spending plan. However, those tax hikes were tentative and required further approvals from the county legislature and NIFA.  

Blakeman has not introduced a tax cut or proposed ending any of the county’s major fees. In 2023, the county lowered its tax map verification fee — a charge on most real estate transactions — from $355 to $270 after courts deemed it an illegal tax.

WHAT HE SAID: In his campaign, Blakeman said he was well qualified to save NuHealth, the public benefit corporation that runs Nassau University Medical Center. In an interview with Newsday in October 2021, Blakeman said he hoped to “find new revenue streams for the medical center.”

"I don't think the county executive [Curran] has the first clue how to do that. I do and I will," Blakeman said.

Blakeman has blamed the state for significant funding cuts. 

WHAT'S BEEN DONE: The hospital’s deficit has grown larger under Blakeman's administration, from $135.6 million in 2021 to $164 million in 2022. NUMC is set to run out of cash in late April, according to estimates from a consulting firm hired by NIFA. 

NUMC officials have said they are trying to boost revenue with a more aggressive approach to collecting unpaid bills. But the consultants said NuHealth "does not have a record of achieving operating improvements of the magnitude called for in their performance improvement plan."

State Health Commissioner James McDonald wrote in a March 1 letter to hospital officials that it was inaccurate to claim the state cut hospital funding. The state has boosted funding for the hospital, which owes more than $300 million in unpaid health insurance premiums.

Hospital officials have been predicting NuHealth will run out of cash since 2020, around the time it lost a major funding stream from the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program. The program, funded by the state and federal governments, had been scheduled to expire that year. "All hospitals, including NUMC, were aware DSRIP funding would not be ongoing," McDonald wrote. 

NuHealth “has failed to implement responsible fiscal planning and has failed to improve its financial performance,” McDonald wrote.

WHAT HE SAID: While campaigning, Blakeman referred to a “crime epidemic" in Nassau and said gunshots were on the rise in some communities. 

WHAT'S BEEN DONE: Major crimes increased 41% in Nassau in 2022 compared with 2021, said law enforcement officials, who attributed the spike to a dramatic increase in property crimes.

Figures for 2023 were not available. In his State of the County speech, Blakeman said major crime has decreased by more than 6% from 2022, residential burglaries are down over 17%, grand larceny is down 7% and stolen vehicles are down nearly 8%. 

In 2020 and 2021, there were 28 shooting incidents involving injury in Nassau, according to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services. The number dropped to 19 in 2022 and 12 in 2023.

A Newsday/Siena poll in November found a majority of residents believe crime in their communities has stayed about the same over the last year. Fifty-three percent of Nassau respondents said crime had remained the same, 35% said they believed it had worsened and 12% said it had improved.

Blakeman's penchant for national hot-button issues and his declaration of being "anti-woke" has resonated with the more conservative wing of his party and led to multiple appearances on right-wing media outlets.

In May, he led a Manhattan rally to support Daniel Penny, a former U.S. Marine and West Islip native accused of fatally choking Jordan Neely, a homeless man, on the subway. Penny has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 8.

Blakeman filed a federal lawsuit against the attorney general's office in March after she ordered him to rescind his restrictions on transgender athletes. James has asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

In speeches, Blakeman refers to the influx of migrants at the U.S. southern border as a "foreign invasion of our country."

“The nationalization of politics can lead local officials to echo national issues that are important to the party’s base,” said Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “The danger is they do that at the expense of focusing on local matters that are important to their constituents.”

It could be a risky strategy in Nassau, where the electorate is moderate and there are 83,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who served as county executive from 2002 through 2009 and won a special election in February to represent New York's 3rd Congressional District, compared the culture war strategy to that of a “pickpocket."

“It's usually a team of people, one person bumps into you. And while that person bumps into you, the other one picks your pocket,” Suozzi said. “You get mad and you get angry, you get off-focus and you get distracted. And meanwhile, Nassau University Medical Center is in financial trouble.”

But Kopel, the presiding officer, said Blakeman's transgender restrictions and defiance of mask mandates are "issues in which county residents are interested."

Republican Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman rode a red wave into office in November 2021, mixing opposition to pandemic mask mandates and vaccine requirements with less partisan pledges to tackle taxes, crime and the county's property assessment system.

Soon after his 2,146-vote win over incumbent Laura Curran, a Democrat, he said he would refuse to enforce the state's mask mandate as a new coronavirus variant tore through the region.

Halfway into his four-year term, Blakeman has struggled to make headway on major county challenges that were at the center of his campaign or that cropped up early in his administration. His pledge to "immediately cut taxes," to fix financial woes that have plagued Nassau University Medical Center and to correct a "broken" assessment system have taken a back seat to conservative culture wars targeting masks, migrants, transgender athletes and New York City crime, critics say. His appointment of political allies to key county posts, public battles with Democrats Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York Attorney General Letitia James, and reinstatement of signs with the county executive's name on county properties have raised questions over his role and its limits.

"He ran on trying to solve everyday problems of citizens, but he's been engaged in a high profile back-and-forth on migrants, on the governor staying out of our backyard, and COVID and all that, where he has no control over those things, or very little control," said Christopher Malone, an associate provost and professor of political science at Farmingdale State College. "He risks these expectation gaps, what's expected of him as a local politician and public servant compared with what he's delivering." 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Two years into his tenure, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman has embraced conservative culture wars but has struggled to make headway on major county challenges that were at the center of his campaign.
  • Blakeman's pledges to tackle taxes, crime and the county's property assessment system have been overshadowed by his actions targeting masks, migrants and transgender athletes, critics say.
  • Blakeman has dismissed suggestions that he is playing to his conservative base and seeking higher office. Supporters say he is focused on local issues that matter to constituents.

Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence), presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, said Blakeman "is spending the appropriate amount of time on county issues. If you go and talk to the man you'll see that he's fully up to speed and very, very conversant with any issue you want to talk about. He'll shoot facts and figures at you like a computer. He knows what's going on."

Ron Gurrieri, president of Nassau's Civil Service Employees Association, Local 830, the county's largest public employee union, said he generally supports Blakeman's positions. "At times, he should put more attention to stuff that’s going on here closer to home," such as NUMC, Gurrieri added. "This hospital serves a large population.”

Richard Kessel, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state board that oversees the county's finances, said, "Not enough has been done to mitigate some of the challenges that the county has faced and continues to face."

"We’ve got a hospital that’s in crisis," Kessel added. “The assessment system continues to be broken and needs to be fixed. There are significant inequities that penalize a majority of the taxpayers, and until you achieve some kind of equity and fairness, the system hasn’t been fixed."

As Nassau's top elected official, Blakeman, 68, of Atlantic Beach, oversees a county with a $4.1 billion budget, more than 7,000 employees and dozens of departments with wide-ranging missions that include child protective services and foster care, maintaining roadways and parkland, and setting values for more than 425,000 properties on the tax roll. Blakeman's salary this year is $227,959, up $16,000 from his salary in 2022 and 2023.  

At his annual State of the County address March 6, he described his first two years as productive, with dips in major crime, upgrades to the county's bond ratings and to police infrastructure, settlements of years-old tax disputes and new contracts with major employee unions. His spokesman did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Blakeman has dismissed his critics. His ban on transgender girls competing on women's sports teams at county facilities, announced at a Feb. 22 news conference, "isn’t a partisan issue, this is a common-sense issue," he said. At a news conference in May touting a taxpayer-funded tourism ad that features him, he told reporters: “I’m not looking for another office. I love my job."

Joseph Cairo, chairman of the Nassau Republican Committee who recruited Blakeman for the county executive race, brushed off “any of the rumors that people are starting about him playing to the national scene." Blakeman is "a local elected official, he’s addressed local issues. He’s supportive of our candidates," Cairo said. 

“You know what his bottom line is? He's fighting for the suburbs,” Cairo said.

Property assessments

A screenshot of the official Facebook page for Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman shows a post made by his campaign on July, 26, 2021 related to property taxes. Credit: Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman via Facebook

What he saidFix the assessment system
He would order the comptroller to audit the recent reassessment

What happenedHe froze the rolls for 2 years; mass-settled tax protests
This deepened inequities among property owners, eroded the rolls' accuracy

Property assessments dominated Blakeman's campaign as he accused Curran of conducting a “slipshod” and “negligent” reassessment of the tax rolls — the first in nearly a decade. 

WHAT HE SAID: “It’s broken, and we will fix it,” Blakeman said during a debate with Curran at Newsday studios in October 2021. He said he would order the next county comptroller to audit the assessment department. 

At his State of the County address, Blakeman said his administration "has gotten under the hood and made the assessment system more fair, more accurate, more transparent and more user friendly, and we are going to continue to improve.”

WHAT'S BEEN DONE: County Comptroller Elaine Phillips, a Republican, issued a report in 2023 that criticized Curran's reassessment and said it relied on outdated home sales and other flawed data. The report did not comment on the tax roll’s overall accuracy or suggest major reforms. Auditors recommended Nassau “develop a plan for keeping assessment rolls current.”

Blakeman has frozen the rolls for two consecutive years. Actual home values have risen much higher than the county’s property assessments, last updated in 2020. The county settles about 70% of tax grievances, pushing the tax burden onto residents who don’t challenge their assessments, tax experts have said.

Elected officials are often reluctant to update property values for fear of political backlash, said Larry Clark, a former director of strategic initiatives for the International Association of Assessing Officers.

“Certainly there will be some people who will see huge increases from what is currently on the books, and those people will complain, as is natural, and that’s why politicians don’t want to open it up,” said Clark, a longtime municipal assessor in Kansas.  

The assessment department under Blakeman has made a series of costly errors. In October 2022, assessors failed to apply a key exemption for 842 property owners, resulting in them being overtaxed by about $1.5 million. That year, the county also inadvertently taxed a New Hyde Park parish, sending the Diocese of Rockville Centre a $677,000 bill in error. In 2023, Nassau County undervalued 624 properties by $139 million and corrected the mistakes at the last minute, surprising hundreds of homeowners who had limited time to appeal.

Taxes

A screenshot of the official Facebook page for Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman shows a post made by his campaign on Aug. 3, 2021 related to taxes. Credit: Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman via Facebook

What he saidLower taxes
'I’ll immediately cut taxes and stop the massive tax hikes'

What happenedThe tax levy remains stable
Blakeman has not introduced a tax cut

WHAT HE SAID: His campaign website said, “Bruce Blakeman is running for Nassau County Executive with a plan to immediately cut taxes." Blakeman said the county should cut the property tax levy by $120 million. Curran had proposed a $70 million property tax cut.

“We need to get things back on track and put money back into our residents’ pockets. As your county executive, I’ll immediately cut taxes and stop the massive tax hikes that are killing the American dream," Blakeman said in an ad.

WHAT'S BEEN DONE: The tax levy has remained stable since Blakeman took office. He has argued that he achieved tax relief by eliminating scheduled tax hikes included in Curran's four-year spending plan. However, those tax hikes were tentative and required further approvals from the county legislature and NIFA.  

Blakeman has not introduced a tax cut or proposed ending any of the county’s major fees. In 2023, the county lowered its tax map verification fee — a charge on most real estate transactions — from $355 to $270 after courts deemed it an illegal tax.

Hospital crisis

What he saidSave NuHealth, which runs Nassau University Medical Center
'Find new revenue streams for the medical center'

What happenedThe hospital's deficit has grown
NUMC is set to run out of cash in late April

WHAT HE SAID: In his campaign, Blakeman said he was well qualified to save NuHealth, the public benefit corporation that runs Nassau University Medical Center. In an interview with Newsday in October 2021, Blakeman said he hoped to “find new revenue streams for the medical center.”

"I don't think the county executive [Curran] has the first clue how to do that. I do and I will," Blakeman said.

Blakeman has blamed the state for significant funding cuts. 

WHAT'S BEEN DONE: The hospital’s deficit has grown larger under Blakeman's administration, from $135.6 million in 2021 to $164 million in 2022. NUMC is set to run out of cash in late April, according to estimates from a consulting firm hired by NIFA. 

NUMC officials have said they are trying to boost revenue with a more aggressive approach to collecting unpaid bills. But the consultants said NuHealth "does not have a record of achieving operating improvements of the magnitude called for in their performance improvement plan."

State Health Commissioner James McDonald wrote in a March 1 letter to hospital officials that it was inaccurate to claim the state cut hospital funding. The state has boosted funding for the hospital, which owes more than $300 million in unpaid health insurance premiums.

Hospital officials have been predicting NuHealth will run out of cash since 2020, around the time it lost a major funding stream from the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program. The program, funded by the state and federal governments, had been scheduled to expire that year. "All hospitals, including NUMC, were aware DSRIP funding would not be ongoing," McDonald wrote. 

NuHealth “has failed to implement responsible fiscal planning and has failed to improve its financial performance,” McDonald wrote.

Crime

A screenshot of the official Facebook page for Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman shows a post made by his campaign on Nov. 3, 2021 reiterating his campaign promises after he won the election. Credit: Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman via Facebook

What he saidAddress the 'crime epidemic'
'I’ll properly invest in police and tackle the 39% increase in gunshots'

What happenedMajor crimes rose 41% in Nassau from 2021-2022
Shooting incidents, victims have declined

WHAT HE SAID: While campaigning, Blakeman referred to a “crime epidemic" in Nassau and said gunshots were on the rise in some communities. 

WHAT'S BEEN DONE: Major crimes increased 41% in Nassau in 2022 compared with 2021, said law enforcement officials, who attributed the spike to a dramatic increase in property crimes.

Figures for 2023 were not available. In his State of the County speech, Blakeman said major crime has decreased by more than 6% from 2022, residential burglaries are down over 17%, grand larceny is down 7% and stolen vehicles are down nearly 8%. 

In 2020 and 2021, there were 28 shooting incidents involving injury in Nassau, according to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services. The number dropped to 19 in 2022 and 12 in 2023.

A Newsday/Siena poll in November found a majority of residents believe crime in their communities has stayed about the same over the last year. Fifty-three percent of Nassau respondents said crime had remained the same, 35% said they believed it had worsened and 12% said it had improved.

Culture wars

Blakeman's penchant for national hot-button issues and his declaration of being "anti-woke" has resonated with the more conservative wing of his party and led to multiple appearances on right-wing media outlets.

In May, he led a Manhattan rally to support Daniel Penny, a former U.S. Marine and West Islip native accused of fatally choking Jordan Neely, a homeless man, on the subway. Penny has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 8.

Blakeman filed a federal lawsuit against the attorney general's office in March after she ordered him to rescind his restrictions on transgender athletes. James has asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

In speeches, Blakeman refers to the influx of migrants at the U.S. southern border as a "foreign invasion of our country."

“The nationalization of politics can lead local officials to echo national issues that are important to the party’s base,” said Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “The danger is they do that at the expense of focusing on local matters that are important to their constituents.”

It could be a risky strategy in Nassau, where the electorate is moderate and there are 83,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who served as county executive from 2002 through 2009 and won a special election in February to represent New York's 3rd Congressional District, compared the culture war strategy to that of a “pickpocket."

“It's usually a team of people, one person bumps into you. And while that person bumps into you, the other one picks your pocket,” Suozzi said. “You get mad and you get angry, you get off-focus and you get distracted. And meanwhile, Nassau University Medical Center is in financial trouble.”

But Kopel, the presiding officer, said Blakeman's transgender restrictions and defiance of mask mandates are "issues in which county residents are interested."

Trump trial begins ... Recycling facility fire ... Jakes 58 groundbreaking  Credit: Newsday

Santos wants docs unsealed ... Trump trial begins ... Grumman plume on the move ... Gooden honored

Trump trial begins ... Recycling facility fire ... Jakes 58 groundbreaking  Credit: Newsday

Santos wants docs unsealed ... Trump trial begins ... Grumman plume on the move ... Gooden honored

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