Laura Curran is the best person to address Nassau County’s struggles head on, and the only county executive candidate willing to try.
Nassau County deserves a competent, honest government. That requires a leader who listens to the people, is not beholden to special interests and can articulate a clear plan to address Nassau’s ills. On the most important issues, Curran makes the case that she is that person more convincingly than her opponent, Jack Martins. Curran demonstrates less fealty to the political powers-that-be, more willingness to hear the public and do its will, and an unusual humility.
Curran, 49, lives in Baldwin. A Democrat, she’s in her second term on the county legislature and before that served on the Baldwin school board. Her plans are tough and clear-eyed, a fact that shines through with her take on the county’s largest problem: the corruption that has destroyed the public trust.
County Executive Edward Mangano faces federal charges as does fellow Republican and former Town of Oyster Bay supervisor John Venditto, for trading political favors to a vendor for personal gain. Venditto, other former officials and contractors were also indicted on allegations Carlo Lizza & Sons Paving Inc. paid millions of dollars in bribes in return for town paving work and zoning decisions.
In another blow, wiretaps in the corruption trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos revealed that he pressured Mangano to give a $12 million storm water-treatment contract to a firm that was paying the senator’s son, Adam, $10,000 a month.
And Newsday reported in 2015 that Nassau agreed to hundreds of contracts for amounts just under the $25,000 threshold that would have demanded legislative approval. Often they were granted to the politically connected, at times for work that was neither needed nor performed. There are bad actors everywhere, in every party. But a systemic government operation that allows it to happen goes beyond a few bad apples. Now is the time to pull out all the stops to convince Nassau County residents that the insiders’ game is finally over.
Martins, a Republican who has a spotless record, could have seized this moment by presenting a fierce ethics plan. Instead he has hedged, opposing the key elements of a plan by an independent panel of experts. They recommended a $2,000 cap on political contributions by vendors to the county executive and the creation of an independent inspector general, with a staff, to provide oversight, a common practice in many municipalities.
But Martins, 50, of Old Westbury, doesn’t see why having an ethics officer who answers to the county executive and whose budget is dependent on that official is a problem. And he says that while he’s willing to talk about limiting political donations of county vendors, he has no thoughts on what the limits ought to be. The blue ribbon panel made its recommendation in September 2015; that’s more than enough time to figure out a position on contribution limits.
Souring the perception of Martins is the strange odor coming from a scheme by Deputy County Executive Rob Walker to award the county’s Civil Service Employees Association $5 million of the $10 million in pay it claims it’s owed in the aftermath of a wage freeze, and a guarantee of no layoffs in 2018. Walker signed a legal document agreeing to the terms with CSEA head Jerry Larrichiuta.
But the deal was blown up by the county attorney, who said Walker had no authority to sign it. Besides, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority says the money isn’t even owed to the union. Larrichiuta maintains that he had a legitimate agreement with Walker. After Walker’s deal was signed but before it blew up, the CSEA, which refrained from endorsing in the past two county executive races, backed Martins.
Then there is this. Last week an audiotape surfaced of Larrichiuta, at a forum for union members, explaining CSEA’s selection of Martins. Larrichiuta said that at separate private sessions seeking the union’s endorsement, he gave Martins and Curran a binary choice: enact layoffs or raise taxes to keep jobs. Martins said he would raise taxes “a little bit,” the union leader said on the recording. However, Martins’ public stance has been that tax increases won’t be necessary. Larrichiuta told members that in her answer, Curran stuck to her public stance that she would not raise taxes. He told members that Martins’ willingness to raise taxes is a big part of why he got the CSEA nod.
Curran favors an independent inspector general, and bans or tight limits on vendor contributions. She’s calling for contracts over $1 million to go before the legislature for approval, rather than being rubber stamped by a few members of the Rules Committee. And she supports limits on officials praising themselves in county-funded mailers, and a ban on mailers within 60 days of an election, an issue on which Martins has been silent.
The other huge issue facing the county and separating the candidates is an assessment office in shambles and a property tax system that costs the county as much as $100 million a year. Savvy owners challenge their valuations annually, spurred on by tax firms that file grievances for a cut of the refund and a county policy to just settle most challenges. The losers are the county, and the property owners who don’t play the game.
Curran’s plan is to hire a qualified assessor and build a department that can accurately value properties. That’s the most practical solution right now. Martins, a former state senator, says he’d get rid of the county guarantee that makes Nassau pay tax refunds to school districts and other municipalities on money it collected but never kept. School districts so vehemently oppose such a change that gaining Albany’s approval would be difficult. As part of his plan, Martins wants to turn assessments over to the towns, paying them to take over the task. That may be the ultimate fix but for now the towns do not want the task or the expense and Martins can’t say how he will accomplish the heavy lift, or when.
On much of what the county faces, the two agree. Both think police overtime is out of control and want to cut government waste. Both think Nassau needs more economic development and would focus on the Hub as the centerpiece of broadening the tax base. Both oppose huge fee increases on traffic tickets and real estate transactions.
Martins garnered management experience when he was mayor of Mineola. Curran is a unifier and leader. Both have a strong record of public service and accomplishment. But where they differ, Curran is right and Martins is wrong.
Newsday endorses Curran.