Nassau County boasts an annual budget of $3.5 billion and, thanks to the coronavirus and the attendant economic shutdowns and expenses, is looking at a projected budget hole of about $400 million this year.
The Town of Hempstead has an annual budget of $437 million, and Supervisor Donald Clavin says it’s looking at a 2020 shortfall of $30 million to $50 million.
Based on the formula of the federal $2.2 billion CARES Act passed this spring, Nassau County could reasonably have expected $236 million from the $150 billion fund created to help out counties and municipalities. But there was a catch: Towns with populations of more than 500,000, of which Hempstead is the only one in the United States, were eligible for their own cash, based on population. So instead of Nassau getting $236 million, it only received $103 million, while the quirk in the law netted Hempstead $133 million from the pot.
Now, with dollars very tight, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran wants Clavin to give her $49.5 million of the town’s money to help the county pay police costs that, according to a letter from Curran to Clavin, were generated "aiding residents" in Hempstead during the pandemic. That makes sense.
Clavin has known that the money, while he did apply for it, puts him in an awkward situation. He has not refused Curran’s request, but says he wants to see what happens with rules governing the CARES money and a possible additional stimulus package before he decides what to do.
Clavin has thus far distributed about $22 million to local food-assistance providers, colleges, hospitals, villages and the Nassau County IDA, covering needs like PPE, coronavirus testing and food for the needy.
But Clavin says he has a fiduciary responsibility to hold on to the rest of the money to see whether Washington lets municipalities go beyond the Dec. 30 spending deadline. Or whether the rules are changed to let them cover revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic, rather than just expenses it generated.
It doesn’t matter.
In New York, the counties provide the bulk of services to residents. That’s why Nassau, with a population not even double Hempstead’s, has a budget eight times larger, and a commensurately bigger budget crunch.
Even if Clavin is allowed to spend the money past Dec. 30, or use it to make up his lost revenue, he would have enough left to provide Curran with the $49.5 million. Clavin says the two have a great relationship, working together closely.
Clavin argues that his responsibility is to his residents, not the county. But Hempstead residents rely on Nassau, for police protection and a big share of Medicaid spending along with maintaining roads, bus transportation, parks and dozens of other services.
If Nassau can’t pay for the services, Hempstead’s residents will suffer. Clavin has the ability and the responsibility to help Nassau help Hempstead Town residents while hanging on to enough to meet his own needs.
And at a time when the pandemic should override politics, that’s the decision Clavin should make.
— The editorial board