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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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The Opposite of Reinvention

If Greece goes down and takes some European banks with it, will it affect County Executive Mangano’s plan to have a French transportation conglomerate take over the bus system? This question would have seemed ridiculous only a few years ago, when we had time to reform and adapt, when we had some breathing space. Maybe we still have some. I hope we do.

Mr. Mangano unveiled his latest crisis plan last week. He said, “Government needs to reinvent itself.” This is an incredible statement, because what he plans to do is exactly the polar opposite of reinventing government. Cutting, closing and selling off public assets in panic mode isn’t reinventing. He has squandered 20 months that could have been used to figure out what county residents actually need and expect for their tax dollars, what absolutely has to continue and what can be discarded, what works and what hasn’t worked, what it will all really cost and what is the fairest way to pay for it.

When it was revealed that his big center ring item was to sell off the county’s sewer system, I think we all realized we weren’t going to get “reinventing” here.

It doesn’t look like we’re going to keep everything, and it looks like some cherished things are going away. It took decades to get us here. A hundred tough decisions have been put off and a thousand warnings ignored. We all get to take a little bow.

Schools are where the rubber will meet the road. Without the top schools, the Long Island I grew up in no longer exists.

Year in and year out, about one in five graduates of this county’s public high schools will attend Nassau Community College. The college and that sewer system are the two biggest things ever built by Nassau County residents. The state, county and enrolled students share the cost of operating our community college. Since late 2009, the state has been pulled back some $11 million in operating aid.

Any reduction in county government support automatically reduces the state’s obligations, according to a complicated formula. County officials won’t vote for tax rate increases, regardless of any declines in property tax assessments. The NCC tax line is segregated on tax bills and dedicated to this one popular program, giving political cover. No dice.

It took some kind of budgeting jujitsu for campus administrators to mostly hold things together with a tuition that keeps the college in line with those in the other large counties. They can’t do this forever, or maybe ever again.

Not all “reinventing” is good. The SUNY system envisioned by state leaders can be characterized as privatization in slow motion, in which state support dollars are replaced by tuition increases, some alumni donations and, most of all, public-private “partnerships” involving research. There would seem to be little room at the grown-ups table for community colleges and some of the four-year schools that are not research oriented.

Over the past several months, the full-time faculty at Nassau Community College argued to county legislators that the NCC administration’s proposed $258 a year tuition increase was not high enough and would result in budget reductions that threaten educational quality. The part-time ‘adjunct” faculty argued to county legislators that the proposed increase was a politically toxic “tax increase” and that further budget reductions should be made instead.

NCC faculty have centered recent public protests around the status and respect they receive from the campus administration. They make arguments about Faculty Senate procedure in a county in which 911 operators are exhausted and $32,000 a year secretaries haven’t had a raise in two years. We’re probably closing police precincts.

Though they now face forces that want their lemonade stand, every faction of the educational community remains silent on public finance reform, tax reform, tax fairness and political reform. It’s the greatest deer-caught-in-the-headlights moment in post-agricultural Long Island public affairs.

Perhaps, maybe, there is just a few moments left when leaders and decision makers can sit down, roll up their sleeves and salvage some control over what happens next.

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