Last Monday, Feb. 2, Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi publicly outlined a plan to close an "unexpected budget gap that could be as high as $150 million." In an emergency budget address before the Nassau County legislature, County Executive Suozzi called on union leaders and both county and state legislators to "take immediate action toward mitigating the county's plans to lay off nearly a thousand civil service employees, police officers, corrections officers, and other county employees." Mr. Suozzi is asking union leaders to agree to a 7 percent pay cut across the board "in order to prevent massive layoffs, drastic cuts in services and the shutdown of county parks and other facilities."
"Things are as bad as they can be," County Executive Suozzi said as he reached out to Washington, Albany and the County's labor unions for help in plugging the huge budget gap they face this year. "There is no question that Nassau County has been severely affected by this national economic crisis, and it would be impossible to over-estimate the trouble we face. This year, sales tax revenues are the lowest they have been in 20 years, the state has made huge cuts in our share of aid, and requests for public assistance have increased significantly. We are in the midst of the 'perfect storm' of economic turmoil and I'm asking each and every county employee to help us to avoid taking drastic action."
County Executive Suozzi pointed to a national economy in crisis and said, "Nassau County's budget took a body blow; a stake to the heart," because of the stock market crash, national credit crisis and interest rates.
"We've seen the largest drop in Consumer Spending since World War II. Housing starts have sunk to their lowest level in history and on Friday, we learned that the national economy shrank to another historic low," said the county executive.
"It was a loss of over $40 million in sales tax revenue that really wreaked havoc on the county budget. For the first time in almost 20 years, 2008 year-over-year sales tax growth will be in negative numbers," explained Mr. Suozzi as he noted that more of the county budget is funded by sales tax than the property taxes residents pay.
He added: "I do not want to lay off workers in the middle of a recession; I do not like the idea of closing senior centers and parks, or imposing a tax on home heating oil. But this is the reality that we face if we don't get the help we need from Nassau County's employee unions."
According to the plan, 320 civil service employees, 250 police officers, 100 corrections officers and hundreds of other union and non-union employees will be terminated beginning April 1.
In addition to layoffs and a county-wide salary reduction, Mr. Suozzi's deficit mitigation plan requires an increase in federal Medicaid assistance and millions of dollars in state legislative items through a tax on cigarette purchases, revenue from red light cameras, and an increase in surcharge on traffic and other vehicular violations.
A home heating fuel tax and $12 million in program cuts will have to be imposed if the state does not authorize the county to install red light cameras, increase fees on traffic tickets and impose a tax on cigarettes.
Responding to the county executive's emergency budget plan, Great Neck's Nassau County Legislator Judi Bosworth stated that "These are very difficult economic times and unfortunately we are faced with choices that nobody wants to make." Legislator Bosworth told the Great Neck Record that "The county executive is exhibiting leadership in an attempt to resolve the terrible financial crisis that we are facing." She added that, "It's a proposal that we are studying."
As for sacrifices to help better shape the future, Legislator Bosworth said that "It is my hope that we will come together as a family of Great Neck and a family of Nassau County and work together to reach what is ultimately in the best interest of us all." The question, she told the Record, is whether or not unions and county workers will agree to salary reductions in order to avoid lay-offs.
And to further shore up finances, Legislator Bosworth expressed hope that the state will cooperate too. "The county executive's plan relies on the state legislature to enact some initiatives that will be revenue resources for the county ... initiatives such as a cigarette tax, traffic cameras at lights, and a surcharge on vehicular tickets."
Along these lines, Nassau County Legislator Diane Yatauro said that "These revenue enhancers are necessary to assist Nassau County as we struggle to repair the damage inflicted by the ongoing nationwide economic collapse." The presiding officer noted that "collectively the three state legislative initiatives would realize $30 million in revenue to the county." She emphasized that "the cigarette tax is not only a revenue producer it is a proven health benefit since it will prevent people from smoking thus saving many lives ... traffic/parking surcharges and the red light cameras will ensure public safety as well as generating additional county income."
Presiding Officer Yatauro added: "We will be balancing deeper budget cuts against a possible reduction of county services, and potential layoffs. No one, let me repeat, no one in government enjoys the prospect of laying off people or cutting programs but our financial condition is grim and we must take responsible steps to avoid further deterioration."
Turning to concerns over fears of decreased county police protection, Legislator Bosworth did state that "there has to be an impact whenever you reduce a work force," but she stressed that the county executive's plan "will not impact on minimum manning hours in each legislative district."
However, there may well be other impacts on the county, with some cut services falling to other municipalities to try to run. According to North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman, "Towns such as ours will receive a diminished amount of mortgage tax and sales tax revenue, but it is based on percentages and not the county budget per se. In that vein, we have suffered losses amounting to several million dollars." Supervisor Kaiman continued, stating that: "In regard to county cuts to services, we will be affected indirectly to the extent that we might need to provide additional services, if we can, at additional cost."
On a very local, village level, Great Neck Village Officials Association President J. Leonard Samansky, mayor of the Village of Saddle Rock said: "It is truly disheartening to find that the Nassau County executive has put county essential services and employment on the horns of a budgetary dilemma. For example, most of county villages rely on the Nassau County police for patrol and all rely on police headquarters services. There have already been several continuing negative impacts in changes to police protection coverage over recent months. Police personnel in patrol cars covering certain areas have been reassigned to cover areas several miles away from their usual patrols. Overtime coverage has been changed to have officers covering other areas move to unfamiliar areas for emergency calls, and police mechanics are being removed from precinct locations to remote locations impeding immediate repairs to patrol cars. Suggestions that minimum patrol requirements will not be changed have already been changed. What will be next? Certain villages have purchased laser guns for the police. Will we be buying patrol cars next?"
Mayor Samansky continued, stating that "Any suggestion to cut police or other essential services will put all village and town residents as well as commercial enterprises at risk. Cutting essential services or programs is not a solution, but will only create more problems. Nassau County needs to fulfill and perform its commitments to protect the health, welfare and safety of the public it serves."
Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman, former Great Neck Estates mayor, reported to the Record that: "Our number one priority is to ensure the financial integrity of Nassau County so that we can continue deliver critical services to our residents. Unfortunately, the national economic collapse is affecting all of us and sales tax receipts are in a free fall. If local economists' predictions are correct and sales tax declines from 3 percent to as high as 8 percent, there will be a hole of up to $125 million in 2009's budget for sales tax alone. These numbers are real and the challenges are many. Making up this shortfall will require sacrifice by all; spending must be slashed further to the extent new revenues cannot be identified."
(Editor's Note: At press time, County Executive Suozzi issued the following statement: "In my address to the legislature on Monday, Feb. 2, I asked the union leaders to speak to their members and pursue solutions and then to come talk to me. They have done so and I am thereby requesting the legislature to reschedule consideration of the layoffs from the meeting on Feb. 9 to Feb. 23.)