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Nassau lawmakers approve referendum for elected assessor; county executive vows veto

Lawmakers also unanimously voted to opt out of the sale of recreational marijuana should the state legalize the program and they passed a bill creating an office of Asian-American affairs.

Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello during the Nassau County

Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello during the Nassau County Legislature's meeting Monday in Mineola. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau’s legislature Monday narrowly approved a countywide referendum on whether to switch to an elected county tax assessor — setting up a confrontation with County Executive Laura Curran, who has vowed to veto the measure.

“Let’s be clear the county executive will be vetoing this legislation,” said Deputy County Executive for Government Relations Michael Santeramo, testifying before lawmakers. “She does not support this legislation. . . . An elected assessor is not the way to go.”

Curran, a Democrat, has 30 days in which to issue her veto. After the meeting, Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) urged in a statement that the county executive “put politics aside to give the people a voice” and added, “should she veto, we will call a hearing as soon as possible to vote on an override.”

Lawmakers also unanimously voted to opt out of the sale of recreational marijuana should the state legalize the program. They also passed a bill creating an Office of Asian-American Affairs.

The assessor referendum bill passed the full legislature 10-7 after heated debate. Two legislators on the 19-member board were absent during the holiday week. But with Curran’s anticipated veto — and all seven Democrats voting against the proposal — it’s unlikely the referendum would be on the Nov. 5 ballot. A supermajority of 13 votes from lawmakers is needed to override the veto.

Republicans hold the body’s majority with 11 members. They have called for changing the appointed assessor’s position to an elected one, citing an “error-riddled” countywide reassessment of more than 400,000 properties currently underway.

“No one has been held accountable,” Nicolello said of the county assessor’s office. “An elected assessor would have to answer to the voters. An elected assessor would have to accessible and responsive to the people.”

Nicolello noted the hundreds of residents who have turned out at public hearings and contacted legislators in their districts, saying they are confused by elements of the reassessment. Residents have especially questioned how their property values were calculated, he said.

But Democrats in the legislature have maintained an elected assessor would create more bureaucracy and have charged Republicans with using the bill for political gain. A referendum would put the hot-button issue of reassessment and property taxes in the minds of voters. All 19 Nassau legislators are up for re-election this November.

Minority Leader Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) was not present for the vote but came out against the bill in committee meetings.

“We are opposed to any proposal that stands to inject additional partisan politics and bureaucracy into a process that demands only competence and professionalism,” said William Biamonte, chief of staff for the Nassau Democrats.

Nassau used to have an elected assessor, but in a 2008 referendum county residents voted to change to an appointed assessor.

Legis. Denise Ford, a Long Beach Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, said she remembered public hearings during the administration of former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, on moving from an elected to an appointed assessor’s position and there were good arguments on both sides.

“Let the people decide,” Ford said.

Legis. Steven Rhoads (R-Wantagh) said of the appointed assessor: “That experiment — while well intended — has failed.”

Santeramo said while there were “bumps in the road” during the implementation of the county’s reassessment program. “But let’s be honest, when something was frozen and broken for eight or nine years, it’s going to be bumpy to get back to fairness and equity,” he said.

In opting out of legalizing marijuana, legislators cited a 77-page expert panel report that showed legalization would negatively impact public health and safety of residents, costing more than the revenue it would bring in.

“We the elected officials of Nassau County are fundamentally opposed to the legalization of marijuana,” said Nicolello.

Among the concerns was what lawmakers said was the inability of police to specifically test drivers to see if they are impaired by marijuana.

Legis. Joshua Lafazan, an independent from Woodbury who caucuses with Democrats, and was co-chair of an advisory panel on legalizing marijuana, said the research showed a “negative fiscal impact to Nassau County.”

But Legis. Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview) urged opting out only on a temporary basis until more research is conducted.

“We should not slam the door on this issue and nail it shut,” Drucker said.

Also on Monday, legislators voted to create a county Office of Asian-American Affairs. The new agency would have a budget and paid staff and would aim to encourage business opportunities and address the concerns of the rapidly growing Asian-American community within the county.

Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) raised concerns about an overlapping of the agency with other similar offices that encourage minority stakeholders. Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) questioned whether the agency would be properly funded.

Funding for the new Asian-American agency would be determined in the next budget cycle beginning in September.

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