Until COVID-19 struck, Hempstead’s status as the most populous town in America provided little more than a modest brag.
But sloppy draftsmanship in the $2 trillion federal CARES Act granted towns with populations above 500,000 (Hempstead is the lone national example) their own money rather than funneling it through counties. That’s how Hempstead was gifted with $133 million otherwise headed to Nassau County.
Suffolk County got $257 million. Nassau got $103 million, way less than was intended, because Hempstead received the $133 million that ought to have gone to Nassau.
And the difference is not just paperwork.
Nassau is beset by unanticipated pandemic expenses it desperately needs CARES money to address. They include health care and Medicaid costs, and public health and emergency management, like testing and contact tracing, as well as using its police force to enforce shutdowns and masking and distancing rules. County officials say policing costs related to COVID-19 alone exceed $80 million.
The county also has an enormous revenue hole and projects a two-year deficit of $750 million, while Hempstead officials estimate the crisis has cost the town just $40 million.
Democratic Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has repeatedly appealed to Republican Hempstead Supervisor Donald Clavin for just $50 million, saying the money would go to expenses generated "aiding residents" in Hempstead. It was a request Clavin seemed to ponder for months as he broadcast how well he and Curran work together, but his attitude now looks like artifice. And her additional argument, that Clavin keeping the money made it impossible to aid municipalities and police forces in county towns other than Hempstead, fell flat with the supervisor.
Last week, with the Dec. 30 deadline to spend CARES funding looming, Clavin dumped $43 million into the town’s sanitation fund, $8 million in the water fund and $1 million in the parks fund. The moves raise eyebrows because they may be illegal, and because those departments house the patronage jobs the town GOP lives on.
Clavin says the spending is allowable, and his high-priced D.C. law firm agrees. But Department of Treasury guidance says the money cannot be used for workers unless they are substantially dedicated to mitigating and responding to the pandemic. Curran argues that Clavin’s decision risks a claw back of the money by the federal government.
An opinion from the Treasury Department would be welcome, but it’s not clear one can be obtained. What is clear is this: During a national crisis so dire that parochialism and partisanship should have been jettisoned for "we’re all in this together" cooperation, Clavin and Hempstead's board failed the test.
Some of what Hempstead has spent its grant on has been needed, generous and wise, and all of it has been transparent. But the failure to share with Nassau the funding the county should have received in the first place is bad for the region, bad for Hempstead residents, and bad for Clavin's image as a leader.
— The editorial board