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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Hub’s Last Chance

Nassau’s voters will go to the polls on Monday, Aug. 1 to express their view on whether the county, owner of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, should be allowed to issue $400 million in bonds to build a new Coliseum as well as a baseball stadium nearby that would house a minor-league team.

The new Coliseum, and I hope one is built, will be similar to the just-opened Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, according to the prospective lease agreement posted at County Executive Edward Mangano’s governmental website. The plans call for a new Coliseum holding a minimum of 17,000 seats and 50 suites. Moreover, the National Hockey League’s (NHL) New York Islanders have agreed to play at a new Coliseum through 2045. The Islanders’ current lease expires in 2015.

But as the proposal’s advocates have correctly noted, this is not just about retaining and recruiting professional sports teams. The new Coliseum and baseball stadium constitute capital investments, which will create 1,000-plus construction jobs and give Nassau’s Hub an economic boost for decades. The Islanders have 41 home games each year, unless they’re in the playoffs, leaving more than 300 days annually when the Coliseum can host concerts and other events. Meanwhile, Nassau’s new minor league baseball team, scheduled to play in the Atlantic League, will quickly develop an avid fan base comprised of families tired of paying exorbitant ticket prices to see either the Mets or Yankees. Suffolk County’s Long Island Ducks, another Atlantic League entry, are in the midst of their 12th season in Central Islip. Since Nassau’s minor-league baseball stadium will be owned by the county; other local teams will have access to the facility, too.  

Given the county’s current budget problems, the referendum’s detractors argue, how can Nassau even consider issuing $400 million in bonds, further burdening Nassau’s property taxpayers? To the first charge, I’d argue the critics need to stop focusing exclusively on 2011, and set aside a few moments to imagine Nassau’s Hub in 2022 if the status quo continues. With the Islanders presumably long gone by that time, and top-tier musical acts and exhibitors uninterested in visiting a Coliseum that opened its doors in 1972, there will be tumbleweeds rolling down Hempstead Turnpike.

The Mangano administration has established a number of taxpayer protections. The Islanders, for instance, must pay all of the new Coliseum costs which exceed $350 million, and the county has set up a dedicated revenue line to collect the funds needed to pay all of the bond’s principal and interest payments. The county’s independent Office of Legislative Budget Review estimates the $400 million bond issue will cost the typical homeowner about $58 per year.

“This is a referendum on a property tax increase,” Leonard Steinman, a Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) director, told Newsday last week. Memo to Mr. Steinman: Nassau had 50-plus referenda on modest property tax increases in May 2011, and nearly 100 percent of them passed in the form of next year’s public school budgets. The reason: Nassau voters almost always support prudent, long-term investments, whether it is in their children’s educations or projects that will undoubtedly improve the region’s quality of life.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net