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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Voters, Donors And Post-Election Reality

Have you ever contributed $5,000 to a political campaign? How about $10,000? Are people and partnerships and committees and businesses who make contributions like that, bless them, representative of the typical resident of this county? Are their priorities the same? Their motivations? Their expectations?

As of 11 days before Election Day, the campaign committees of County Executive Ed Mangano and former County Executive Tom Suozzi had raised $10.718 million during this campaign cycle, and 50.8 percent of it, just over half, was raised in contributions of $5,000 or more. $3.25 million of it came from contributions of $10,000 or more. Those 187 checks of $10K or more averaged $17,407.

According to Newsday, the portion of the property tax bill that goes to the county government increased by $220 a year for the average household due to the 2003 and 2009 tax rate increases we’ve heard so much about this campaign season. Even if the home of a $10K contributor had a valuation of 10 times the average, or 20 times, how big a concern can county property tax bills be to those who fund these campaigns?

For many of us, the taxes on which local governments most rely, property taxes and sales taxes, hurt the most, because they do not represent any relationship to actual wealth or the ability to pay.

In 2009, the last year for which our state government makes full statistics available (releasing the information faster would be tattling), the 43,876 full-year residents of Nassau County reporting state taxable income of at least $200,000 earned more than the 600,773 filers who made under $200,000 ($23 billion to $21 billion). The 10,191 residents reporting state taxable incomes of $500,000 or more earned significantly more than the 501,111 filers reporting incomes of less than $100,000 ($14.5 billion to $10.3 billion). That was at the height of post-2008 losses, from which most very high-income earners have fully recovered.

The people for whom local taxes are an extreme and growing burden, and the people who get to personally inform politicians about what they want, need and expect from local government are increasingly two different groups of people.

Most people entering politics have trouble asking people for campaign contributions. It’s a hard and humiliating thing to do for most well-adjusted people, but I know something that’s harder: Taking a check for $17,407 from someone and then telling them something they don’t want to hear.

And that’s how we end up with these dreary, insipid, lowest-common-denominator, meat-free campaigns in which very, very little is settled, proven, verified or affirmed by public balloting. In case you were away, here is all you need to know about the campaigns for Nassau County Executive for most of September and October: “He raised the debt.” “No, he raised the debt.”

We all raised the debt, because we have an unsustainable system of local public finance made worse by an economic situation that is far beyond the county government’s control no matter who is elected, and this is only going to get worse if we do nothing. Some choices are more unpleasant than others, some are fairer than others, some might give this county a fighting chance to thrive in a future that looks bleaker and bleaker for many suburban communities across this country.

Simply averting a crisis does not mean anything is fixed. I don’t just mean fixing finances. We can’t run governments in 2014 using playbooks from 1974.

If we’re not going to actually try to fix anything, then we need to begin a strategic retreat and disengagement, salvaging the most important functions and services before we lose room to maneuver and unpleasant choices are made for us.

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