Four years ago, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran stepped into an extraordinary mess.
Curran, a 53-year-old Democrat from Baldwin, inherited a county government rightfully distrusted by residents and battered first by accusations of corruption, then by convictions.
Her predecessor, Edward Mangano, was found guilty of federal corruption charges, as was Mangano’s chief deputy, Rob Walker. Wiretaps of former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos revealed he pressured Mangano to give a $12 million county contract to a company paying son Adam Skelos $10,000 a month, in a case that led to federal convictions for Adam and his father.
And hundreds of contracts written for amounts just beneath the $25,000 threshold demanding legislative approval went to connected cronies of county leaders, for work that was often not needed, and was sometimes not performed.
There has not been a whiff of corruption in Curran’s administration. That should not trigger kudos, yet in Nassau County, it does.
But corruption was far from the only challenge Curran faced.
Four years ago, the county’s finances also were in shambles, with annual budget deficits regularly exceeding $100 million. Nassau’s assessment system was a liability for the county and a boon to tax-grievance firms: The county no longer even tried to set values on properties, and let almost all tax challenges succeed. Mountains of such challenges over several decades were a primary driver of the county’s $3.5 billion debt, and unfairly increased the tax burden of those who did not grieve.
The budget she wrestled into balance, even before COVID-19 brought massive management challenges and a big pot of federal bailout money, may be her greatest feat. Under Curran, Nassau ended 2019 and 2020 in the black.
And during the pandemic, the long-term debt refinancing she worked out with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority secured a path forward for the county when tax revenue cratered, assuring the continued delivery of services even before Washington approved its COVID largesse.
ASSESSMENT PLAN WAS GUTSY
Her assessment plan, based on valuing properties accurately and smoothing the bills into fairness over five years, has been bedeviled by controversy over the rising obligations of those whose annual appeals had driven their taxes below their fair share. There were unforced errors of computation, communication and administration, and attempts to continue updating values annually have been confounded by a chaotic real estate market.
Even so, Curran’s fix, a gutsier and more comprehensive one than anyone else had suggested, much less implemented, is happening. Barring more disasters, it should provide a workable system over the next few years.
Looking to replace Curran, Republican Bruce Blakeman has made attacking Curran's assessment plan the centerpiece of his campaign. The Hempstead Town board member’s characterization of her actions as "raising school taxes" is untrue. And despite having decades to ponder the issue, going back to his time as the county legislature’s presiding officer in the 1990s, he offers no blueprint on how to fix the system.
On issue after issue, Blakeman, 65, from Atlantic Beach, offers not solutions, but a search for solutions. He says he’ll gather the stakeholders and set the best minds to working on every county problem, but he has few concrete ideas on how to move Nassau forward.
His one specific promise, a $120 million-per-year property tax cut, he largely owes to Curran. He reasons that the county can now afford it. Her leadership has made it so.
BLAKEMAN LACKS SPECIFICS
Blakeman’s myriad runs at offices, from state comptroller to New York City mayor to seats in the House and the U.S. Senate, paint a flighty resume. His lack of specifics on how to fix Nassau don’t inspire confidence. He could not even articulate any priorities or criteria for selecting the county's representative to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.
Curran’s term hasn’t been perfect and we have been very critical of some of her decisions. Many of the miscues with her assessment revamp were avoidable. She seems increasingly unwilling to ruffle political feathers, witness moves like refusing to mandate vaccination for police officers and other county employees who deal with the public. Her $375 checks for most Nassau households, funded with federal stimulus, appear more targeted toward appeasing voters than softening the economic impacts of COVID. That’s also true of her temporary $150 million tax cut, spread out over four years.
On COVID, her work to help push the county toward a high vaccination rate is offset partly by her misguided refusal to mandate vaccines for police and others.
But Curran has done a good job by any standard. On many important issues, the county is better off now than it was when she took office. She’s also kept the divisive political rhetoric to a minimum, which cannot be said of the Republicans who control the legislature and delight in deriding and obstructing her.
Blakeman is smart, experienced, respected and successful, but he’s not prepared to take on the challenge of leading Nassau County, if only because he has not bothered to prepare.
Newsday endorses Curran.
ENDORSEMENTS ARE DETERMINED solely by the Newsday editorial board, a team of opinion journalists focused on issues of public policy and governance. Newsday’s news division has no role in this process.