Nearly seven years after a state oversight board took over Nassau’s finances because of a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and a credit downgrade, county executive candidates Jack Martins and Laura Curran say it’s time for elected officials to take control of Nassau’s fiscal future.
Martins, a former Republican state senator from Old Westbury, and Curran, a Democratic county legislator from Baldwin, have introduced proposals to cut Nassau’s $3 billion debt, reduce its projected $55 million budget deficit for 2017 and repair its broken tax assessment system.
The goal, they say, is to end the control period the Nassau Interim Finance Authority imposed in 2011.
But with voters focused on the issue of public corruption, after indictments of key officials including County Executive Edward Mangano, the candidates have said less than usual about the central issue in past campaigns: How to cut high county property taxes.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said the “drumbeat of indictments and convictions has been impossible for many voters to ignore,” and could supersede pocketbook issues.
“I think there’s been a shift this year,” Levy said. “In most local elections, voters care especially about three things: taxes, taxes and taxes. This year, it’s taxes, taxes and corruption.”
Martins and Curran oppose property tax and fee hikes to raise revenues. Each also acknowledges that boosting sales tax revenues by spurring new economic development will take years.
But beyond vowing to examine the budget for waste and inefficiencies, they’ve offered only general proposals to reduce police overtime, eliminate patronage jobs and cut outside legal contracts.
“I reject the fact that we have to lay people off, cut services or somehow go out and increase fees in order to make ends meet,” Martins said. “Sometimes it actually means going in and seeing whether or not we are using best practices and being as efficient as can be.”
Curran said the county is in “dire straits” due to mismanagement and poor planning during the almost eight years of the Mangano administration.
“For a county as wealthy and successful as Nassau . . . we can do much better than this,” Curran said. “And it’s going to take some tough decisions; it’s going to take strong oversight and strong management of tax dollars.”
The candidates agree on many fiscal issues.
They oppose Mangano’s plan to raise nearly $60 million in his 2018 proposed budget by hiking fees on traffic tickets and real estate services.
Curran and Martins also have pledged not to lay off county employees, although both said they would consider eliminating some nonunion appointive positions.
Curran said she would target patronage jobs such as community service representatives and constituent affairs workers.
“Some of these are glorified citation bearers,” she said of officials who largely perform ceremonial duties. “Do we need them? Maybe not.”
Curran also would eliminate “bloated” outside legal contracts which often go to politically connected law firms. She would bring more legal work in-house, though that would require hiring of more deputy county attorneys.
Curran did not provide a specific projected savings figure for either proposal.
Martins said Nassau could save more than $60 million by cutting overtime in the county police department and at the county jail in East Meadow. Payroll in Mangano’s 2018 budget for Nassau’s approximately 7,400 employees is nearly $900 million — with more than $90 million budgeted for overtime.
Martins called the ratio “extraordinary,” and said overtime can be reduced by hiring more police officers and through better management and oversight of staff hours.
“The basic question is, how many people do we need to provide services without relying on overtime,” Martins said. “We all pay an exorbitant amount of taxes. We need to make sure that we are providing those services in a cost effective way.”
Curran also mentioned overtime as a potential source for savings, but said it may require concessions on staffing requirements from the county’s labor unions during upcoming contract negotiations.
Martins and Curran differ on how to fix Nassau’s often error-prone property tax assessment system, which is responsible for about a third of the county’s total debt. Successful tax challenges have prompted county borrowing of an average $100 million a year to pay tax refunds.
Martins said that if elected he would lobby for state legislation to transfer the county’s responsibility for residential and commercial assessments to Nassau’s three towns. That’s how assessments are handled in Suffolk and all but one other county, Tompkins, except New York City.
Martins said he would use the savings from ending Nassau’s assessment role to temporarily give towns the staff and resources necessary to set up new assessment systems. Staff at the county’s Assessment Department, he said, would likely go to work for the towns, reducing Nassau’s payroll.
“There’s going to be integrity in the system again, the level of challenges will go down and the savings will be real,” Martins said.
Curran said Martins’ plan is “just not realistic.” She noted that Nassau’s three towns have opposed the idea consistently, including when Mangano floated it in 2013, citing the cost of running assessment departments and tax refunds they likely would have to pay out.
Green Party candidate Cassandra Lem has not released detailed plans for Nassau finances.
But she has expressed support for state legislation to create single-payer health care across New York. Lem said such a system could save Nassau several hundred million dollars a year in employee health costs.
Curran would conduct countywide reassessments every three to five years, boost the staff of the county’s Assessment Department and hire a credentialed assessor. James Davis, who has been acting county assessor since 2012, lacks a college degree or certification from the International Association of Assessing Officers — prerequisites for the post listed in the Nassau County Charter.
“I think it would result in fewer grievances . . . and save us money,” Curran said of her plan.
Curran also is notably more open-minded to privatizing county services than Martins and has declined to rule out revisiting Mangano’s proposal to lease the county sewage treatment system to a private investor. Mangano has said the deal would bring in up to $1 billion in upfront cash to retire debt.
“Business can often be more nimble than government can, and more responsive,” Curran said, speaking generally about so-called public-private partnerships.
Martins is skeptical. He would consider ending a contract with Transdev, operator of the county’s NICE Bus system, and is reluctant to move forward with the sewer deal.
“I am skeptical that money does not come with a significant price tag over time,” said Martins. “We shouldn’t sell out our future for the sake of a couple of bucks today.”
Republican Jack Martins and Democrat Laura Curran, the major party candidates for Nassau County executive, have issued a variety of proposals for balancing the county budget.
Where they agree:
- No increases to property taxes or county fees.
- Scale back employee overtime, particularly in the police department.
Where they disagree:
- Property tax assessment: Martins would lobby for state legislation to transfer responsibility for residential and commercial assessments to Nassau’s three towns. Curran would focus on boosting the qualifications of the county assessor and hiring additional staff to reduce tax grievances.
- Service privatization: Martins opposes a past proposal by County Executive Edward Mangano to lease the county sewer system to a private investor. Curran has not said whether she will support the plan. She said that, generally, she would consider any proposal that resulted in savings without reducing the quality of services.