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Federal cash needs big plans

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran wants to use

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran wants to use a portion of federal stimulus aid to make $375 cash payments to homeowners. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The American Rescue Plan is sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Suffolk and Nassau counties that can be spent on transformational projects.

That’s what makes the push by both Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and her GOP election opponent, Bruce Blakeman, to buy taxpayers’ votes with much of the excess cash so frustrating. Neither Curran’s plan to send $375 checks to every homeowner earning less than $500,000, nor Blakeman’s counter to use the $100 million to cut property taxes, appears to be legal.

Some context. Last year, as COVID-19 ravaged Long Island, Nassau and Suffolk reaped good news: Both had budget surpluses for 2019 — $77 million in Nassau and $25 million in Suffolk, thanks to strong economies. The pandemic threatened the good times and had Curran and Bellone fearing billion-dollar shortfalls, but better-than-expected revenues and huge federal cash injections brightened the picture.

Now both counties project surpluses for the next several years, much of it thanks to Suffolk’s $285 million and Nassau’s $398 million from the rescue plan along with booming sales taxes and real estate fees.

But the cash payments are intended only for individuals financially impacted by COVID. Curran’s $375 checks don’t fit that bill. Nor does Blakeman’s counteroffer of a tax cut, presented with a campaign slam on Curran’s reassessment program, that would use one-time revenue to cut taxes permanently.

What would fit? Water or sewer infrastructure, both huge needs on Long Island, or broadband. Investments in behavioral health and addiction programs. Job and education programs to help communities and individuals in need.

Curran, to be fair, also proposes $63 million in rescue plan spending that includes $30 million to boost small businesses and workforce development, $9 million for septic-system replacements and water quality, and $18 million for various social services. These are admirable priorities, but the needs are much bigger than the commitment.

Bellone has specified $42.5 million for sewer projects around the Carlls and Forge rivers, but fears the economic boom may not stick and is holding back on committing to more spending. His caution is understandable, but it might cause Suffolk to miss a unique opportunity.

These windfalls ought to be used for one-time investments that move the counties forward.

In Nassau, that could mean seeding the municipalization of American Water, protecting the resource while alleviating huge bills. In Suffolk, it could mean leveraging the cash to improve sewer and septic dramatically. In either county, it could mean a campaign to reduce fertilizer use to protect waterways and the aquifer, or a program that grooms minority applicants to join police departments, or groundbreaking expansions of mental health and substance abuse programs.

Any part of this transformational funding used for "politics as usual," rather than moving the Island forward, will have been wasted. For the leaders of these two huge counties, it’s time to think big.