“Smart Growth.” It is one phrase you never hear uttered by Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano but is a phrase that Tom Suozzi used all the time during his eight years as County Executive and now, as he campaigns to be returned to that office.
And it showed. Suozzi brought an understanding of the structural problem of Nassau County, the nation’s first suburb, and the cycle of endless property tax increases that maturity of a community based on bedrooms, building homes and furnishing homes had wrought. He actually had a vision for sustainable growth – resuscitating downtowns into livable, walkable, workable communities – “cool” places that will attract young professionals so they don’t move to Brooklyn, and are alluring to seniors who can sell the expensive homes they raised their families in and live, instead, in a comfortable, affordable apartment (as so many have in Great Neck Plaza); and turning brownfields into productive use. He didn’t just talk about it or promise it, he did it.
“Growth is the key to Nassau County’s future,” he said at the Long Island Association debate on Tuesday. “Either we grow or die….We have to be in the ‘future’ business, to make Nassau not yesterday’s great place but tomorrow’s great place.”
Nassau County has the rare opportunity to contrast two candidates who actually have an on-the-job record.
And you can contrast Suozzi’s administration which pulled the county back from the brink of bankruptcy (to which it had been brought by the Tom Gulotta administration at a time when the nation’s economy was booming, mind you), and even after the Fiscal Collapse in 2008, kept the county economy from the devastation that was afflicting so many other communities
And then Mangano came to office, and for a while, he was able to sail through on Suozzi’s momentum and the foundation he had built, now he uses the downturn in the economy which led to lots of county people losing their jobs and cutting into sales tax revenues, as a mark against Suozzi, and now he takes credit for the economic rebound. It had nothing to do with Mangano.
But what has Mangano actually done? The first action Mangano took was to repeal the tax on energy – (which Suozzi put in precisely because of the economic downturn, and by the way, would have encouraged conservation). But that immediately put the county budget $40 million into a hole.
Mangano is most proud of not having raised county property taxes in four years – his entire campaign is built around it – but this was Gulotta’s modus operandi, too, even as the county’s finances were collapsing. And like Gulotta, Mangano has had to borrow money to cover operating costs, as if borrowed money is free money. Borrowing money to pay to build something that lasts generations is justified – an investment in the future, but borrowing money to pay for operating expenses is hocking the future.
Mangano has no clue how to restore Nassau County to its vibrancy. He is reactive, manages by manufactured crisis, and has proved stubbornly resistant to taking ideas from the other side. He treats the Democrats on the Legislature as if they were the enemy – withholds information on important programs and policies until the last minute (the plan to privatize Long Island Bus and then the sewer treatment authority are two examples), and yet had the nerve to stand up at the LIA debate and tout the fact that he has a wonderful working relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo and the federal elected officials (who are Democrats). That’s because he wants money out of them.
That wouldn’t be so terrible, except that his approaches have been disastrous. He has embraced the Tea Party’s political support, but also its philosophical underpinnings. His war on public workers – and unions – hasn’t resulted in reversing the county’s precarious fiscal situation; consolidating police precincts hasn’t produced the savings he promised. He regards workers as widgets and wages as giveaways.
Mangano is now boasting the hasty (politically well-timed) deal for Forest City Ratner, the group that developed the Barclays Center, to renovate the Nassau Coliseum for $229 million of their own money, but let’s not forget Mangano originally wanted a deal with Charles Wang which would have saddled Nassau residents with a $400 million bond obligation (and the $2 million wasted on an August referendum) and this deal with Ratner for a smaller scale arena, basically guarantees that the Coliseum will never again host a major professional sports team (Ratner is protecting his interest in the Brooklyn arena which is the new home for the Islanders).
The County’s sewer plants, despite receiving the go-ahead for $400 million in bonding in 2009, are a shambles – estimates put the amount of money needed at $1 billion – and this was before Superstorm Sandy. Sandy was a gift to Mangano because now he can look to federal reimbursement and hope no one realizes that the $400 million, if it had been spent, would have elevated the electrical controls so that Sandy would not have destroyed the plants’ functionality.
And where is the money? It somehow disappeared. Mangano’s appointed head of the Department of Public Works tells me he has no actual expertise in this area, and when he appeared before the County Legislature could not answer their questions and about where the money went.
The biggest structural problem for Nassau County is its assessment system. Mangano promised a fix and his first action was to fire the county’s first actual professional assessor and install his own who has no background whatsoever in assessment. Mangano’s solution was to shift the liability for hundreds of millions of dollars of tax refunds onto the school districts, which would have meant that instead of our school tax dollars going to educating our children, would have simply funded tax repayments, while our taxes would go up to cover our neighbor’s lowered assessments. That part has happened, which is why most of us have seen our property taxes hiked well above the 2% caps that the school districts and other municipalities have stuck to (at great cost to educational quality).
Mangano doesn’t have a solution to the assessment problem. He has only made it worse.
The assessment system is the biggest single drag on the County’s economy. It costs taxpayers $250 million each year, including $100 million in refunds and $150 million in interest on debt incurred to pay tax settlements in previous years, and accounts for more than $1 billion in outstanding debt. Mangano at one point stated that the average land owner in Nassau County pays 30% more in property taxes because of the broken assessment system. But by May 2010, Mangano was already resorting to new borrowing to finance the tax refunds.
Under Tom Gulotta, unpaid tax cert obligations amounted to $400 million; Suozzi’s administration reduced that amount to $164.3 million, but under Mangano, the amount increased again to $388.4 million, according to figures provided by the Democrats.
Suozzi, who changed the law so he could hire a professional assessor, once again has an actual plan to fix the assessment debacle and it makes sense. First there should be a rationale assessment system so everyone pays their fair share (they will still gripe and grumble about property taxes as people do everywhere in the country regardless of how much they actually pay), and that a justified refund be made as a credit on the following year’s payment, instead of cash, which would eliminate the need to borrow money ot pay refunds. He proposes to fix the commercial assessment department, and change the way the county pays grievances so Nassau homeowners are no longer responsible for handouts given to big business.
Tom Suozzi speaks eloquently and in detail about his vision for the future – of revitalizing downtowns and making them places people want to live and work in – Great Neck Plaza is a model for this – and the answer as Suozzi says, is changing the zoning to allow for mixed use.
Mangano’s solution has been endless tax giveaways to bribe businesses to stay, while robbing communities of revenue that has to be made up out of their households – and yet, somehow Nassau County has been left out of every federal and state grant, even when they are dying to give money away for innovative start-ups. Areas where Nassau County should be a leader- stem cell and medical research and technology, robotics, wind energy and turbine manufacture just for a start. An economy that doesn’t depend on how many pairs of jeans teenagers can buy.
“We have to figure how to dramatically change, we have to grow, and to grow, need to change zoning, building office buildings in downtown, and bring high-paying jobs,” Suozzi said. ” We have to stop playing small ball cutting services to quality of life goes down and start playing offensive and make county greatest in country, make this place the dream it should be. We have everything it takes, all we need is the leadership.” That an ideas and vision and the capacity to actually think complex solutions through.
Look at the reaction to Superstorm Sandy – Mangano is muddling through, not really reactive, happy to get the $6.7 billion in federal money (I thought Tea Party people didn’t like federal government, they sure as hell don’t want to pay federal taxes, but Mangano is very happy to have someone else pay), but has done zero to shift Long Island’s economy away from fossil fuels, nor has he shown much compassion for the people who are still out of their homes and who have yet to receive any money (he is content to wait until it is all sorted out at the federal and state level). I don’t see Mangano championing a wind farm 12 miles off the south shore, or campaigning against the Liquified Natural Gas port that is contemplated, or looking at ways to mitigate the impacts of the next superstorm.
There is a reason why Suozzi has been endorsed by Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and just about every other environmental organization.
“They see me as candidate who will develop a comprehensive plan necessary to address a complex problem,” Suozzi said. “New York State put out a report citing the need to protect the shoreline, raise streets, look what needs to be done with stormwater. But in Nassau County we have no such comprehensive look at this problem. We need to bring together environmentalists, public works, engineers. Also, there is no database of people still not in their home – is it hundreds, thousands? We should know how many people are out of their homes. We need to know what’s going on with FEMA, with NY Rising, with local building departments, and develop database to look at problems and see patterns.”
There is nothing smart about Mangano’s administration, nothing visionary or strategic. Everything is reactive. He has no clue what the concept of “sustainability” is. He can’t even discuss any issue without reading a script that tells him what his plan should be.
Suozzi wove the concept of sustainability, recognizing the key point: Nassau County, America’s first suburban community, is matured, has no place to go. As a bedroom community relying on property taxes, it is unsustainable. He was vigorous in making changes, and in this campaign, has been specific in what he would do if he was returned to the County Executive’s office:
The night before the Long Island Association debate, I was on the telephone for an interesting debate organized by AARP, along with some 12,000 other 50-plusers.
The differences between Suozzi and Mangano are striking in terms of the depth and clarity of responses.
A number of New York families are in the position of serving as caregivers to elderly relatives – the number has increased to 32% up from 25% in the 1990s. More than half of older people would be in institutional settings like nursing homes, which would be paid for by Medicaid, which puts the financial burden onto society. What would you do?
Mangano pointed to a hotline. “It is important that we are there to protect our senior citizens. We provide robust assistance here in Nassau County What we try to do is to keep Nassau County affordable,” and then he went on about how Suozzi raised taxes when he first came to office, ending his statement saying, “Care is available, guidance is available, protection is available.”
I actually am offended when Mangano points to any safety net program, when he has slashed funding for just about every program in the budget with a callousness that borders on maliciousness.
In contrast, Suozzi actually offered a solution: “I grew up with all four grandparents – 3 were sick. Now my father is 92 and my mother 90, and I thank God they have long-term care insurance, which sometimes pays for family members who serve as caregivers. We need to work with New York State so Medicaid can be used to pay for family or neighbors to provide care and that will save money instead of institutionalizing someone, while helping them stay in more comfortable settings. Most want to be in their house, near family and friends. We need to encourage them to get long term insurance and figure out how to use existing Medicaid and other programs to pay for family and friends to help.”
Suozzi also pointed to North Hempstead’s Project Independence and the 311 program as models that might be emulated – “naturally occurring retirement communities. they set up hotline where people can coordinate all the different programs, meals on wheels, even accessing a handyman. they have organized 25,000 taxi rides, visiting nurse, neighbor to neighbor program
“The bottom line is most people want to try to stay in their own homes, they don’t want to move in with their kids, and they want to be independent. To do that, there are existing programs- they existed while I was in office. We need to do a better job of delivering those services,” and he encouraged cooperation with AARP to bring “age-friendly communities” to Nassau County.
The candidates were asked about what they would do to support downtown redevelopment which offers desirable and affordable places to live for young and old.
Suozzi, who during his time in office had a marvelous “Cool Downtowns” program pointed to the New Suburbia Trailblazers program “which builds on successes when I was executive” such as in Westbury, Farmingdale, Glen Cove, and now Freeport, Hempstead which want to revitalize their downtown. “I want a competition to become next ‘Cool Downtown’ – where there is affordable housing near the train station, restaurants and cultural places. We will have 10 places in the first four years – we will get grant money from community development – to have visioning and change zoning. We would do it only in the places where people want it.
“I have a proven record of success in this area,” Suozzi said. “I helped build or renovate 2000 units of affordable housing, encourage visioning process in places like Farmingdale. It is the only way to create a future, expand the housing base, provide housing for young people and seniors in communities that make sense.”
Mangano’s response was to site an economic incentive plan that has seven projects – 1000 apartments – “in the pipeline,” four around transit hubs, turning eyesore buildings into apartment buildings in Farmingdale, Mineola and Great Neck is on the way (though I am not sure what he was referring to in Great Neck).
Mangano’s administration is been disappointing, and worse than that, mean-spirited He has gone after Democrats and Democratic ideas as if a warring enemy. He has been secretive, exclusionary, partisan. And ultimately, his agenda has failed. Nassau County is doing not-so-bad but because Nassau County has great schools and access to New York City jobs.
Here’s an example: the biggest problem for Nassau County finances are the crippling drain of refunds on the tax certioraris, which wind up costing even more of a fortune because of interest accrued on the borrowed funds to pay them off. The Democrats on the Legislature proposed various budget amendments that would have saved the county $26 million, including this one: that the budget set aside $40 million, instead of $10 million, for the payment of property tax refunds, which is closer to the actual amount that is paid out each year. This is the principle of “pay-as-you-go” rather than borrow funds to pay annual expenses. Needless to say, the Democratic amendments failed and the budget was adopted by the Republican Majority 10-9, which is now structurally and forever more intact because of Republican gerrymandering.
Mangano has been a disaster for County finances, whereas there is no denying that Suozzi took the county from the brink of bankruptcy to solvency and growth. Under Suozzi, the county got 13 bond upgrades to its highest credit rating (which saves money on interest payments); under Mangano, we have had 3 bond downgrades and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the control board, has taken over.
Growing the tax base by making the county a place where innovators and entrepreneurs want to build their businesses, young professionals want to live and work, and seniors want to retire (retirement is a big industry in itself), is the only way to solve the tax problem – not by slashing services.
I want a candidate who is positive, who sees solution, who can imagine creating something better.
Suozzi’s slogan is “Bring Nassau back.” Tom Suozzi did it before. He will do it again. Bring back Tom Suozzi as Nassau County Executive.
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