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Blakeman's moment has arrived

Nassau County Executive-elect Bruce Blakeman campaigned on ending

Nassau County Executive-elect Bruce Blakeman campaigned on ending Laura Curran's assessment revamp, but now says he's going to have the experts evaluate before he acts. Credit: Howard Schnapp

As Nassau County Executive-elect Bruce Blakeman builds his team and orders his priorities, his first step should be assessing what predecessor Laura Curran leaves behind. Blakeman must identify the smoothly functioning departments and initiatives to be mostly left alone, and the faltering departments where changes are needed.

That’s important with any changing of the guard, but Blakeman’s situation and Nassau’s triumphs and struggles under Curran make it unusually crucial.

Neither Blakeman nor his Republican Party mates thought the Hempstead Town board member stood much chance of winning. That’s why they didn’t devise detailed plans for what they’d do if they triumphed. Blakeman campaigned in generalizations and platitudes, and now must develop strategies, set priorities, hire a team, and attend to the governing of a huge, complex county.

Luckily, and with significant credit to Curran, who was lately blessed with strong sales tax revenue and unprecedented federal COVID-19 stimulus, Nassau is in decent financial shape. Like a doctor taking over care of a patient whose health is stable and improving, Blakeman must first do no harm.

ETHICS A TOP PRIORITY

Curran came in on the heels of a Republican administration beset by scandal. Criminal accusations against former County Executive Edward Mangano and his chief deputy, Rob Walker, eventually became convictions, and hundreds of questionable no-bid contracts were granted to powerful people, at times for work that was neither needed nor performed.

Curran’s squeaky-clean four-year run in the job, heading an administration that avoided any whiff of scandal, may be her greatest triumph. Matching that must be a crucial goal for Blakeman.

Hiring Nassau OTB second-in-command Arthur Walsh, the right-hand man of Nassau County Republican Party chairman Joseph Cairo, could portend a parade of patronage. Asking Walsh to resign from his positions as county GOP vice chairman and Floral Park GOP committeeman would be wise. Curran signed an executive order barring top county officials from political positions. Respecting rather than repealing or trampling it would send the right starting signal that Blakeman is willing to place the demands of governance over political imperatives. Keeping her good-government initiatives and watchdog practices in place is crucial, too.

Another hot-button issue where Curran mostly got it right was her makeover of the assessment system to resume valuing properties regularly and restore fairness to the bills. The larger bills it generated for people who’d regularly appealed under the old system of frozen values and automatic grievance victories are unpopular. But the five-year phase-in of those fair bills is now state law.

Blakeman campaigned on ending Curran’s assessment revamp, but now says he’s going to have the experts evaluate before he acts. With the tentative roll due Jan. 3, just two days after his inauguration, the smart move is to leave her plan in place and work to stop the unforced errors in valuations and communication that bedeviled Curran’s administration.

Blakeman also says he’s assessing unpopular fees on traffic tickets and real estate documents that he campaigned against. The Republican-led legislature tried to end them, then failed to override Curran’s veto of their repeal the day before the election.

The fees are worth $140 million annually, but two recent court rulings suggest they’ll be struck down, and rightfully so. Blakeman can and should end them, but must replace the revenue or cut spending rather than simply rely on optimistic sales-tax dreams.

LONG LIST OF CHALLENGES

Those are the headline issues, but there are plenty of other big items on his to-do list. He must:

  • Contend with a LIPA property tax lawsuit that could cost the county $1 billion in refunds if it loses, and that municipalities in similar straits have already settled. The county needs to take the deal on offer.
  • Get to the table and ink fair contracts with Nassau’s largest unions, the PBA and CSEA, out of contract since 2017.
  • Turn the tide on crime spikes in some areas while living up to, and furthering, the county’s planned policing reforms.
  • Maintain fiscal discipline and the county’s balanced books, making sure the influxes of one-time money from COVID stimulus and opioid settlements are used wisely, transparently, and in a way that does not create ongoing financial obligations after the money's gone.
  • Facilitate a revamp of the Nassau University Medical Center that allows it to be a financially stable public-mission hospital that serves residents well.
  • Finally and properly redevelop the Uniondale Hub, the plan for which is due in February.
  • Execute a bidding process for the county’s bus service that provides what residents need.

The list is long, but the greatest challenges Blakeman faces revolve not around specific problems or projects, but around maintaining the principles of fair, open, honest, and nonpartisan governance. Encouraging residents to apply for jobs through a website is a promising start. Listening to all residents in our cornucopia of communities will be vital.

The demands on any Nassau County executive for jobs and contracts and favors are aggressive, and endless. The old ways of doing business — deals that attracted federal prosecutors like flies to honey — should not return.

Blakeman has sought the main spotlight for a long time. Now is his moment to perform, shape his legacy, and continue to move the county forward.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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