"What's the biggest problem local government faces?" Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi asked his audience, as he addressed the third anniversary meeting of the Great Neck Co-op & Condominium Council last Monday evening, Sept. 20. The issue, Mr. Suozzi said, is taxes. Accompanied by County Comptroller Howard Weitzman and Board of Assessors Chairman Harvey Levinson, the county executive presented a lively review of his tenure to date.
At the Great Neck Co-op & Condo Council meeting (l. to r.): front row, Marc Schneider, legal advisor; Gerry Kahn, executive board; Stu Hochron, GNCCC co-chair; Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman; Enid Howard, executive board. Marion Green, executive board; and back row, Chair of the County Board of Assessors Harvey Levinson and Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi.
Mr. Suozzi began at the beginning, Jan. 1, 2002, when he took office and took over a county rife with over-whelming financial problems. With NIFA set to take over, he was given 90 days to come up with a plan and he developed his five-point plan, which, he stated, has already seen great results.
Mr. Suozzi then ticked off several positive results, including a work force that is now the smallest in 30 years (with a budget decrease of $40 million); a savings of $100 million from addressing "waste, fraud and abuse;" hard work on union contracts, such as the tough fight with the PBA, which he said "we won;" cutting borrowing in half; an initial tax raise, followed by his promised no more raises (and he has not raised taxes for two years in a row); and an impressive series of county bond upgrades such as two in one year from several such as Moody's (Nassau County's bond's were one step above "junk" when Mr. Suozzi took office).
The problem, Mr. Suozzi reiterated, is "property taxes." He explained that Nassau County has stopped growing, but expenses continue to grow "dramatically." The county has three sources of income --- state and federal aid which has decreased greatly since the 80s, sales tax revenues, and property tax revenues, which are not growing.
"I did cut expenses," the county executive explained, again stating that even though expenses are growing, they have "no say." Mr. Suozzi further explained that the state mandates are the problem. New York State passes programs, mandates local government to carry out the programs, but offers no financial support. And while Mr. Suozzi acknowledged that many are "fine programs, great programs," such mandates still cost the municipalities such as the county (and the school district) a great deal of money. He likened such mandates to "taxation without representation," calling these mandates "undemocratic."
Mr. Suozzi also noted that local taxes within New York State are 72 percent above the national average. "People just can't take property taxes anymore," he said.
In addition to the tax issue, Mr. Suozzi also touched on the problems of traffic in Nassau County, the loss of young people (losing 20 percent of the age 18 to 34 population over the past 10 years), and "gangs in pockets of poverty" in Nassau.
Then the county executive turned to "Albany," first stating that "democracy is boned on competition ... but in Albany people keep getting re-elected." It is Mr. Suozzi's opinion that state legislators "should stand up to this." He complained that they "haven't connected the dots" and figured out the problems. "Someone must be held accountable," he stated, telling how he ran afoul of Sheldon Silver (speaker, New York State Assembly) when he made such statements public. "Taxes keep going up and we have no say over it."
On a very local level, Mr. Suozzi praised Great Neck, saying it is "a great place to live, one of the best places in the world." But, he continued, "if we stick with the current rules and cut taxes, we must lower services ... and still we have traffic and our young people are leaving."
The county executive was firm, though, that "it doesn't have to be our future." He believes that with the "educated, intelligent, informed, active people all over Nassau County, people who care," something can be done. "We must make choices," he said, "and if we don't want to cut social services, we must create a plan."
Tom Suozzi then called for "targeted growth and an expanded tax base." He stated that "we need some patriots" who will stand up and say that the state can't keep "pushing down" expenses on local municipalities "without us having a say."