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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Is It Time to Dissolve Nassau County?

It doesn’t have to be the disorganized, seat-of-the-pants, helter skelter dismantling that we’re heading toward. There may still be time for a controlled demolition. It is time to put on the table the possibility of dissolving the government of Nassau County. At least most of it.

Dissolution as a strategy to salvage critical functions is increasingly being raised as local governments around the United States run out of options.

In 1997, the government of fiscally insolvent Middlesex County, Massachusetts, was dissolved. Middlesex is the most populous county in New England, with 1.5 million suburban residents, more than Nassau County. The county itself remains as a geographic identifier, but almost all functions were either absorbed by the state or, like the county hospital, phased out. Towns and villages have created formal compacts to share some key services. A few years ago, a group proposed eliminating the Oneida County government in upstate New York (Utica, Rome), specifically using Middlesex as a model. Connecticut decided 50 years ago to eliminate all of its county governments, and Danbury still stands.

For several years, Supervisor Paul Feiner of Greenburgh, Westchester’s largest town, and a former presiding officer of the county legislature, has very visibly promoted the elimination of the county government there. Mr. Greenburgh, a Democrat, acknowledges that some employees would lose their jobs, but he is far from being an anti-tax ideologue. He strongly opposed deep cuts made to bus routes, child care services and mental health programs last year. Sacrificing some things may provide the means to maintain some really important programs, before everything is lost.

At least we can have a few lucid moments to assess what we have, what we really need and what we have to do to pay for any of it. Right now, we have denial and outright delusion.

Nassau County’s revenue problems have devolved into a long-range solvency problem. There are no painless solutions, but our leaders act like there are. It’s easy to just make mindless across-the-board budget cuts. It’s harder to figure out what people want and need and expect from local government, and to reorganize things accordingly. It’s easy to say there will be no increases in tax rates, regardless of the cost of borrowing and its implications for the future. It’s harder to work out fairer, more rational taxes that more people can understand and support.

Perhaps on May 16, you received the disturbing brochure from County Executive Mangano headlined, “Ed Mangano is the first County Executive to End Borrowing Against My Future.” A small boy holds a digitally-inserted sign that says, “Thank You Ed Mangano!” During May, Mr. Mangano was pushing the county legislature to approve $100 million in new borrowing to cover operating expenses for 2012. The governor and several state legislators made clear they will not support Mr. Mangano’s proposal that the state legislature snake in and approve the borrowing without local authorization. Far from ending borrowing, our county executive is inventing new kinds.

This publicly-financed campaign literature cost Nassau County taxpayers something in the vicinity of $125,000, assuming that it was a countywide mailing and not mailed only to perceived sympathetic voters based on political enrollment. That would be a highly unethical practice that crosses a line that is clear even in Albany and Washington.

Lending money to local governments that are not solvent doesn’t make them solvent. It just increases debt load and pushes aside the acknowledgment of reality until after the next election. An occasional budget shortfall is one thing. It happens. But we now have young people earning degrees at Nassau Community College who have never known a Nassau County without chronic fiscal problems. Because we’ve taken so many simple and easy paths in the last several years, we have county programs that are being pushed to systemic operational failure.

The things our county government does on a daily basis most directly affect the families who are most at risk and vulnerable to catastrophe or crisis. If Nassau County will no longer conduct business with any kind of reasonable speed or effectiveness, we need to figure out who can, or step aside and let New York State figure it out.

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