Nassau County, facing annual budget deficits in the tens of millions of dollars, has earmarked nearly $15 million since 2013 for projects for legislators' districts, including statues, a tractor to maintain museum grounds, Wi-Fi and weight room equipment in schools and a roller hockey rink.
As Nassau’s fiscal problems persisted, county legislators approved roughly 200 projects through Nassau's Community Revitalization Program for school districts, towns, villages, cities and libraries, according to county records.
The program is funded largely through bills, known as earmarks, requested by individual lawmakers. They get pieces of the budget pie, and get to choose how it is spent.
Two horse statues
Where: Gerry Pond Park in Roslyn and Roslyn High School
How much was allocated? $71,000 for work, including renovating the area around the statue in the park, and $75,000 to repair its identical twin sculpture, which was missing the head of the horse tamer and the horse's front hooves
Which legislative districts? 11th and 16th districts
Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein
The spending, while a fraction of the county's roughly $3 billion budget, came as Nassau struggled with budget shortfalls.
Nassau's operating deficit was $73.6 million in 2013; $189.2 million in 2014; $125.3 million in 2015; $83.1 million in 2016; and $63.2 million in 2017, according to the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state monitoring board that controls the county’s finances. There is no final tally yet for 2018.
“The county is working very hard to dig itself out of a financial hole, and it’s hard to justify them just giving that money away," said Howard Weitzman, a NIFA director and a former two-term Democratic Nassau County comptroller.
“It’s clear this is a program just to embellish the records of legislators in their districts,” he said.
“In general, money that is sent to one community may not be going to the place where that money is needed the most, because the decision is not based on merit or competition," said Thomas Schatz, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste, which issues reports on earmarks by Congress.
"It’s based on someone going in and asking the legislature for the money, and then it doesn’t go through a committee process, it doesn’t go through a competitive process with other communities in the same county that may have a greater need,” Schatz said.
Nassau legislative leaders defend the program. They say the county has strict controls to ensure accountability on the projects, which must serve a governmental purpose. They also stress that county funds go to taxing jurisdictions — not private organizations — that are represented by elected officials who are accountable to the public.
“You’re not financing a private venture that makes a legislator look good,” said Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park). “It’s not money that’s being handed out to private foundations and private organizations, no matter how worthy. It . . . is all governmental projects.”
Nicolello said, “Either way, these are projects that taxpayers would be funding one way or the other.”
Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said the revitalization program "forces the county to deal with jurisdictions and municipalities that are governed and are beholden to the taxpayers of Nassau County.”
Money from the program “ends up going to many expenses that the school district or the library district feels they cannot afford,” Abrahams said.
Quiet room in the library
Where: Baldwin Public Library
How much was allocated? $36,132 for renovations, which included new walls that cut down on noise and counter-like desks
Which legislative district? 5th District
Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp
County officials started the Community Revitalization Program during the administration of then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat who served from 2002 to 2009, officials said. Initially, much of the funding went for streetscaping.
In 2005, when the county first borrowed to fund for CRP projects, each legislator could get up to $200,000 a year for spending on pet projects, and the amount increased to $300,000 in 2014, said Brian Schneider, deputy county executive for parks and public works.
Under the Community Revitalization Program, lawmakers can request funds for county capital projects and joint projects with municipalities, such as museums, zoos, golf facilities and rinks. The capital projects must serve a “county purpose” and have a “useful life” of at least five years, according to the CRP application.
Where: Town of North Hempstead's Manhasset Valley Park in Manhasset
How much was allocated? $100,000 for the new comfort station, which includes redesigned restrooms and equipment storage for the Parks Department
Which legislative district? 9th and 10th districts
Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman
While many lawmakers see earmarks as a way of funneling needed money directly to their districts, critics say such spending primarily is a way for legislators to demonstrate fealty to powerful local organizations.
The federal government, New York State and Suffolk County all have tried to clamp down on the practice amid budget woes, the optics of wasteful spending and concerns about fiscal transparency.
Records show that in Nassau, much of the CRP funding has gone to public safety projects.
The legislature has funneled about a third of the funds to benefit town and village police and firefighters, along with other emergency personnel.
Lawmakers have earmarked CRP funds for ShotSpotter technology to detect the location of gunfire in the Village of Hempstead and City of Long Beach, thermal imaging cameras for the Bellmore Fire District, Taser guns for the Village of Freeport and a fire and rescue boat for the Village of Bayville.
Earmarks have varied widely across Nassau’s 19 legislative districts, with some communities emerging as bigger winners than others, records show.
How much each legislative district got
To find out what district you are in and to see details on all the projects there, click here.
The legislature approved the most funding — $2,073,999 from 2013 through 2018 — for the 19th Legislative District, which is represented by Legis. Steve Rhoads. Before him, Democratic Legis. David Denenberg, of Merrick, represented the district, which covers South Shore Nassau communities, such as Seaford, Bellmore, and Wantagh.
The smallest total amount, $220,000 during that period, went to the 8th Legislative District, represented by Legis. Vincent Muscarella (R-West Hempstead), which stretches from Bellerose Terrace to West Hempstead.
Newsday’s analysis found that many earmarks went to school districts, including:
- The Massapequa school district, which got $500,000 for sports lighting at Berner Field.
- The Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, $250,000 for turf fields.
- Northern Parkway Elementary School, nearly $50,000 for a wellness track.
- The Seaford school district, $25,000 for a high school scoreboard.
- The Lynbrook school district, $8,870 for wrestling mats.
Other member items provided:
- $71,000 for work, including renovation of the area around a statue of a horse tamer and his steed at Gerry Pond Park in Roslyn, and $75,000 to repair its twin sculpture that once was outside Roslyn High School.
- $100,000 for a “comfort station” at North Hempstead Town’s Manhasset Valley Park.
- $24,000 for a scientific study on beach closures in the Village of Laurel Hollow.
- $50,000 for bathroom renovations at Westbury Memorial Public Library.
- $22,000 to build a statue in Roosevelt of Brig. Gen. George A. Jones, a trailblazing African-American veteran of the U.S. Army, National Guard and New York City Fire Department.
Brig. Gen. George A. Jones statue
Where: Outside the Roosevelt Post Office
How much was allocated? $22,000 to build the statue
Which legislative district? 1st District
Photo Credit: Johnny Milano
Many of the projects require the county legislature to approve agreements with other municipalities. Projects generally are funded by the municipality overseeing the work, and Nassau reimburses the local agency after the project is finished.
In other cases, the county performs the work with its own employees or vendors.
County earmarks can help municipalities and school districts fast track projects that otherwise would have been funded incrementally over many years, officials said.
“The real advantage for us is the ability to accelerate some projects that were already on the drawing board,” said Carle Place school district Superintendent David Flatley, whose district got $65,000 in CRP money to renovate a weight room.
Renovated weight room
Where: Carle Place Middle-High School
How much was allocated? $65,000 to renovate the weight room
Which legislative district? 14th District
Photo Credit: Barry Sloan
“That’s a project that would eventually be on our list of projects to complete, and these dollars allowed us to complete that all at once, . . . as opposed to putting a couple of the dollars into them each year,” Flatley said.
In 2014, Jericho school officials were looking to install Wi-Fi in district buildings. At the time, many districts did not have universal Wi-Fi and Jericho was beginning to consider the expense.
Jericho, which got $75,000 from the county, had been “planning on phasing that type of project in” over multiple years, said Victor Manuel, assistant superintendent for business. The county funding “allowed us to basically complete it in a much shorter period of time and allowed us to get the Wi-Fi up and running districtwide,” he said.
County Legis. Laura Schaefer (R-Westbury) said if districts can pay for CRP-type projects, “If they can afford it, they should really do it, because everybody pays a lot of money in school taxes."
But "if it’s a school that’s financially pretty sound, they do well, and this is something you can help out with and give them a little extra money, I don’t think there’s anything wrong," Schaefer said.
The county also approved a $475,000 request to renovate a roller hockey rink at the Newbridge Road School in the North Bellmore school district, for use by a local roller hockey league. The rink was dilapidated and was damaged in superstorm Sandy.
Bellmore-Merrick Roller Hockey rink
Where: At the Newbridge Road School in the North Bellmore School District
How much was allocated? $475,000 for rink renovations
Which legislative district? 19th District
Photo Credit: Shelby Knowles
“The Bellmore Merrick Roller Hockey League has provided instruction for 10,000 kids over the history of that league," said Rhoads (R-Bellmore). "No matter how much fundraising they tried to do privately, they would never have been able to raise $475,000 to replace that rink. That’s helped 10,000 of our area kids learn the sport of hockey.”
Weitzman, however, expressed concern about the level of CRP funding going to schools, "especially when the state comptroller’s audits have shown how deep the reserves are in many of these school districts."
Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has criticized numerous school districts in Nassau and Suffolk for building up cash reserves that exceed the state’s legal limits.
School reserves totaled nearly $2.44 billion last year on Long Island, according to state data.
Towns and villages also receive CRP funds.
The county legislature approved $100,000 for North Hempstead to build a “comfort station” at Manhasset Valley Park. The project, completed in 2015, featured redesigned restrooms and space for the town parks department to store equipment.
Dan DeVita, mayor of the Village of Laurel Hollow, said he is waiting to use $24,000 from a county earmark to conduct a scientific study of beach closures. Village beaches have been plagued by high bacteria readings, forcing closures.
“Is it runoff? Is it human feces? Maybe someone’s septic system? Is it geese, maybe someone walking dogs?” DeVita asked in an interview. “We want this testing continued and we want to know what’s causing all this.”
Scientific study on beach closures
Where: Village of Laurel Hollow
How much was allocated? $24,000 to study high bacteria readings that have forced closures of the village's beaches.
Which legislative district? 18th District
Photo Credit: James Carbone
“The county, the town, the state, everyone has an interest in the Long Island Sound," DeVita said.
Also, the "county’s not the only one under budget constraints . . . We have a lot of pressure on us as local municipalities to stretch every dollar we can and not raise taxes where we can," said DeVita, who noted the state-mandated 2 percent property tax cap and unfunded state mandates.
County CRP money also has gone to erect and repair statues, and for work at museums.
The county provided $22,000 for the project to install the statue of Brig. Gen. Jones outside the Roosevelt Post Office.
Jones fought in World War II, the Korean War, and was one of the few African-American members of the New York City Fire Department in the 1940s through the 1960s. He also served as Nassau's director of equal opportunity employment and minority business enterprise officer.
Nassau approved the funding in 2015, when Jones was 92 years old. He died the next year.
“You wouldn’t do that for anybody who was plumber of the year," said Abrahams, the minority leader, who requested the county CRP funds. "This is someone who has reached national status that very few have reached, and he just happened to be from Roosevelt and Nassau County.”
In September, officials celebrated the arrival of a long-awaited John Deere tractor for the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor.
John Deere tractor
Where: Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor
How much was allocated? $16,500 for the tractor, which will be used to maintain the 145-acre site
Which legislative district? 11th District
Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp
The tractor, funded with a $16,500 earmark, will be used to maintain 145 acres on the former Frick "Clayton" estate. Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) said the tractor is crucial for eradication of swaths of the invasive porcelain berry vine in wooded areas.
While such projects remain popular with county lawmakers, County Executive Laura Curran, a Baldwin Democrat who served in the legislature from 2014 through 2017, said she would speak with Abrahams and Nicolello about ways to “make the program better."
For instance, Curran suggested funding CRP grants through multiyear capital plans, so they are “in one place” where “everyone can see where everything is."
“I understand that legislators — having been one myself — want to use all the tools they have to represent their districts as vigorously as possible, and to deliver for their districts using the tools that are available,” said Curran, who secured $495,000 for individual projects in her district during her tenure as a county legislator.
DeRiggi-Whitton acknowledged the county's fiscal problems, although, "I do think when you hit a specific need in a community, they see it, they know it, and they really appreciate it,” she said.
But Schatz, of the D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste, said earmarks, don't represent "the way the money should be spent. It should be spent more equally across the county, not just in a particular legislator's district where he or she is looking to use the money to make themselves look good."