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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Final Thoughts (For Now) on the Coming Austerity

1. By the time you read this, a state financial oversight board may be taking control of Nassau County’s finances, limiting the ability of locally-elected officials to make decisions regarding budgets, revenues, debts and contracts.

2. Maybe the most important thing, no matter how this plays out, is that the county executive needs to start speaking on a higher level to constituents. No more mailings with pictures of football players (“Ed Mangano Holds the Line on Property Taxes”) or fish heads. People are fairly desperate to have someone talk to them like adults, Moynihan-style. Instead of implying that he has everything under control (“Ed Mangano is Cleaning Up the Mess!”), it will be better for everyone if he just lays things out straight and plain. He might actually turn to the public for advice and ideas. This county has a huge built-in talent pool on which to draw. People with ideas, people who know how to run things, people who want to see things fixed.

3. One reason the county hasn’t lost control of its finances already is the heap of basket cases developing across New York, and state leaders aren’t in a big hurry to establish precedents that get them in neck deep all over the place.

4. The City of Newburgh on the Hudson River was America’s first electrified city, the place where RCA first test-marketed television in 1939. For 2011, 21 percent of the remaining city workforce was laid off and city property taxes were hiked 71 percent. A report to the state says that revenues are hopelessly flat and taxes may have to rise dramatically to remain viable. Newburgh officials have publicly floated the idea of dissolving the city.

5. We don’t have to waste this crisis. It can be a huge opportunity to start making significant changes for the better. The hot phrase in worldwide public administration, thanks to British professor Philip Monaghan, is “Sustainability Within Austerity.” Local governments around the world are experimenting with cost-neutral strategies that in the long run will make their communities stronger and better able to thrive.

6. They’re doing it to increase efficiency and free up resources for other critical work, so that “doing more with less” is more than just an empty phrase.

7. We have county workers who have never received a proper work evaluation. Good evaluations correct problems and give employees an idea of where they stand, increasing morale.

8. It isn’t just the county government that needs to catch up. Some are starting to move forward, but aren’t quite there yet. One local village got a bunch of news coverage recently when their website added a live feed of residents playing with their dogs in a village park. It’s cute, but you can’t go online to watch a village board meeting.

9. Town governments have never caught up with villages and cities. Some Nassau County villages offer more comprehensive and sophisticated services than the Cities of Long Beach and Glen Cove. The terms “city,” “village” and “town” are anachronisms.

10. Legislation that failed to pass in the ’60s would have merged all county and town road maintenance, snow clearance and tax collection operations. Some local governments are sharing plowing here and there, and what have you. It’s not the same. We haven’t had a comprehensive review of the county charter for 40 years. It used to be an Article of Faith within the Democratic Party.

11. If we’re going to maintain overlapping governments that do the same things, let’s at least standardize their equipment and best methods so they can share in emergencies.

12. Nassau County has never replaced the old exoskeleton of the old Republican organization, which, if nothing else, assured everyone of where they stood and how they could move up. The machine is gone, in most places, but no proper culture of good management replaced it.

13. Mr. Mangano’s election was a surprise and he should look at his chances for re-election as an even bigger surprise. If he does that, he will be liberated to do the things that need to be done to truly fix the county.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net