In her first 100 days in office, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran had to find $45 million to pay a lawsuit judgment and marshal county resources to respond to four nor’easters. She also banned her appointees from accepting gifts as minor as a cup of coffee from county vendors.
That might have been the easy part.
Curran, Long Island’s first woman county executive, won in November on a platform of ethics reform.
But Curran said that since taking office Jan. 1, she’s had to focus urgently on averting a financial storm driven by ballooning operating expenses and persistent budget deficits.
The county’s finances prompted Curran, a Baldwin Democrat, to try to tackle the county’s broken property assessment system, propose unpopular fee hikes to bring in more county revenue and ask all department heads for plans to reduce expenses.
“When I’m running around the county saying, ‘We have a fiscal mess,’ I really mean — we have a fiscal mess!” Curran, 50, said in an interview in her new office in the county executive and legislative building on Franklin Avenue in Mineola.
Nassau’s $3 billion budget could have a deficit as large as $104.7 million in fiscal year 2018, according to an analysis from the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state-appointed board that controls the county’s finances.
Looming for Curran in the next few months is the gap between recurring expenses and revenues.
In 2018, Nassau will have to pay:
- More than $125 million in debt service on $1 billion in accumulated borrowing to pay refunds, and another $70 million in refunds for new tax judgments.
- $45 million for a legal judgment to two men exonerated for a 1984 rape.
- $870 million in personnel costs plus the unknown price of new collective bargaining agreements with the county’s five major public unions.
- $260 million for contracted services such as inmate health care at the county jail and NICE bus service.
NIFA Chairman Adam Barsky commended Curran for sending early warning signs about the budget.
“The tone starts at the top,” Barsky said. “There needs to be recognition by all of the stakeholders that there is a large fiscal problem and it’s not business as usual. Extraordinary measures need to be taken at all different levels.”
County Comptroller Jack Schnirman, a Democrat, said “we have to take seriously the fact that during the course of this next year we might move from a fiscal crisis to a fiscal emergency. I think we have to accept the reality that the structure of the finances are broken and that just balancing the budget on bubble gum and duct tape isn’t going to work anymore.”
But Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant based in Manhattan, questioned whether it’s possible for anyone to come into office and solve Nassau’s financial problems.
“What’s her unique formula for getting out of the financial trouble? Is she really going to take on the PBA and the other public unions?” in contract negotiations, Sheinkopf said.
Schnirman, also in his first term, echoed Curran’s tone on finances.
Political analysts, county and state lawmakers and union officials also noted that Curran’s first 100 days have come in the shadow of predecessor Edward Mangano’s corruption trial in federal court in Central Islip.
Mangano, a Republican, and former Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, also a Republican, face charges including conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and honest services fraud. Mangano also faces an extortion charge and Venditto is fighting securities fraud charges.
Mangano’s wife, Linda, faces charges including obstructing justice and making false statements to the FBI.
The three have pleaded not guilty.
Curran said that within days of taking office, she sought to lay the groundwork for an administration free of the appearance of ethical impropriety.
She took the county executive’s name off dozens of county parks and municipal buildings, a tradition she called a “thoughtless exercise in vanity” during her campaign. She banned her appointees from holding leadership positions in political parties or working on her campaigns — and as a result, County Attorney Jared Kasschau resigned as a leader in the Rockville Centre Democratic Committee.
Curran also prohibits her staff from accepting favors and gifts of any kind, such as free rounds of golf or gift baskets, from vendors with business with the county.
“I know people will be watching. I know the press will be watching. I know the residents will be watching. And everyone will be holding me accountable and I expect nothing less,” said Curran.
During her county executive campaign against Republican Jack Martins, Curran cast herself as an independent political outsider.
Her office is decorated sparsely with blush-colored walls, laminate wood floors and apple-green velvet throw pillows on a four-seater couch she purchased herself. A former yoga instructor, she works at a standing desk.
“She has turned the image of county government around, if not the county government yet,” said Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs. “It’s a big change from what we’re used to.”
Sheinkopf said Curran’s big challenge will be to show that she is independent of any political machine. “In Nassau County that is very hard to do,” he said.
Sheinkopf said Curran “must be incorruptible — absolutely straight down the line — a change agent. Taking the name off the parks, that’s all well and good, but who gets the bond deals down the road. Who really gets taken care of?”
The last Democrat to serve as Nassau county executive, Tom Suozzi, who represents the Third Congressional District, said Curran is “sending a very clear message that the old way of doing business is over.” Curran once worked in Suozzi’s county executive press office.
Legislative Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said Curran has had a “good businesslike” relationship with the Republican majority. While they blocked Curran’s proposal to raise additional revenue by charging Little Leagues and other athletic teams for using county ballfields, Republicans have voted to confirm nearly all of her 12 appointees and to approve her request to borrow $2.2 million to hire two firms that will finish a reassessment of every property in the county.
Nicolello also said Curran’s push for ethics reform appeals to Republicans and Democrats.
“It was something that we were all campaigning on last year. I don’t think it is necessarily new,” Nicolello said. “With the headlines and criminal charges it’s something the public would like to see.”
But Curran faces challenges as the year unfolds.
Leaders of the county’s major public employee unions are concerned about a lawsuit the county filed in state Supreme Court to invalidate a job protection deal between Mangano chief deputy Rob Walker and the county’s five public employee unions.
Walker signed agreements with each of the county’s unions — the Civil Service Employees Association, Police Benevolent Association, Superior Officers Association, Corrections Officers Benevolent Association and the Detectives Association Inc. — aimed at restoring longevity pay, a bonus for longtime county workers that had been frozen under their most recent contract. The unions are working under their previous contracts, which expired Dec. 31.
Some union officials say their relationship with Curran already is strained.
“It’s kind of ironic to speak about the first 100 days because it took over 60 days to get a face-to-face with her,” said Kevin Black, president of the Nassau Superior Officers Association, with represents about 335 sergeants and other high-ranking officers.
Black said he had a good relationship with Curran as a legislator, but “it appears to me that she has totally changed her mind or is getting some very bad advice.”
Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the 3,500-member CSEA, Nassau’s largest municipal union, said Mangano’s relationship with the unions didn’t flourish until his second four-year term, which began in 2014.
“Laura Curran needs another 100 days,” Laricchiuta said. “I don’t think it is fair to assess her. She got thrown into a tornado. She’s trying to get her footing so I’m willing to give her another 100 days.”
Curran’s effort to overhaul Nassau’s property assessment also faces hurdles.
Curran in March signed an executive order that unfroze the tax rolls for the first time since 2011. She argued that accurate property assessments will help the county defend the amount of taxes charged to property owners who regularly grieved them.
Under Curran’s plan, property owners who are under-assessed — many of whom grieve frequently — likely will see increases phased in over a gradual period of time. The 6 percent annual assessment increase limits, or 20 percent over five years, satisfy state law aimed at preventing homeowners from receiving sharp assessment hikes, which can boost tax bills.
But fellow Democrats have raised concerns about whether the plan will unfairly burden communities where property owners don’t often challenge their assessments — leaving them to pay fair market value while others get the benefit of the prolonged phase-in.
Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) was one of three Democrats who voted against approving bonding to hire two assessment firms to re-evaluate every property in the county.
She said Curran’s plan perpetuates disparities because homeowners, especially in minority communities, who have rarely grieved their taxes would continue to shoulder the difference in tax rates. A Newsday investigation last year showed that $1.7 billion in taxes were shifted from those who won tax appeals to those who did not in a six-year period.
“Yes, there was a difference in opinion between me and other legislators and the county executive,” Bynoe said of the bonding vote. “I would like to see Laura commit to working with legislators and community organizations who feel strongly that the way forward on revals [re-evaluations] is to strike a balance toward equality.”
Curran said a countywide reassessment is the right approach.
“The idea of just pushing pause and delaying — I just couldn’t do it,” Curran said. “I knew that we had to just rip the Band-Aid off.”
•Enforcement of her anti-corruption executive orders barring her appointees from holding positions in political parties and donating to her campaign; and banning gifts from vendors with county business.
•Addressing a $104.7 million deficit, according to NIFA, because of budget risks in 2018.
•Ensuring the completion of a property tax assessment to be conducted by two firms by the end of 2018.
•Contract negotiations with the county’s five major public unions and the fate of a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate an agreement the previous administration had with them for longevity pay.
•Initiatives to raise revenue supported by the GOP-controlled county legislature.