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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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County’s Struggles

Nearly 40 percent of county government is financed through sales taxes, and that leaves Nassau’s governmental business model vulnerable during economic downturns. Many people have less money in their pocket. Those who do have cash are more frugal. The county, for example, received $998.6 million in sales tax monies in 2008, and then saw that figure drop 5 percent in 2009, to $949.7 million, according to the county comptroller’s website. There was a slight uptick in Nassau’s sales tax receipts in 2010, with the county collecting $997.2 million last year. Still, 2010’s number fell short of 2008’s sales tax collections. County comptroller George Maragos, in reviewing the county’s sales tax trends for 2011’s first six months, wrote the following in July: “We project sales tax revenue [by year-end 2011] will be approximately $10 million less than the county’s adopted budget of $1,023.4 million.” That figure is equal to about $1 billion.

Having said all this, this month’s debate in Mineola about the 2012 county budget is focusing on the right issues. Nassau County government has a spending problem, too, and labor costs (e.g., salaries, benefits) are the biggest cost-driver. In this era, everyone must share with their employer the costs of paying health insurance premiums. County employees, who are also taxpayers, have for too long been shielded from this economic reality.

The Mangano administration and the Republican-controlled county legislature laid off more than 100 county employees in 2011, and I don’t think they want to send anyone else onto the unemployment line in 2012, even though they voted to do just that earlier this month. I believe it was a way for the county executive and the GOP’s county legislators to signal to the CSEA and the county’s other public-employee unions that, in the absence of labor concessions, they were willing to make difficult choices to keep county government solvent.

The county’s Democrats, who will have nine seats in the 19-member county Legislature next year, rather than 8, will remain in the minority in 2012 and 2013. They’ve seemingly cast their lot with whatever the county’s public employee unions want. The Nassau Democrats’ tireless cheerleaders, Newsday’s editorial board, endorsed 13 Democrats for the county Legislature in 2011, even as the newspaper called repeatedly for Nassau to get its labor costs under control. Cognitive dissonance is my armchair diagnosis of what explains this disconnect.

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