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Q&A: Candidates for Nassau County Legislature—9th District

Anton Newspapers asked Republican incumbent Richard Nicolello and Democratic challenger Jason Watson to respond to the following questions.

Richard Nicolello

How should the county solve its budget crisis? Should the police unions and the Civil Service Employees Association make contract concessions? Should county services be cut? Should there be a tax increase? Should the county eliminate its guarantee to refund other taxing districts (including school districts) share of property taxes paid in error due to county assessment errors?

The county must resolve its budget crisis through spending reductions and the reform of county government so that we provide the most efficient and economical services to the residents at the least possible cost. Nassau residents already pay the highest property taxes in the nation. Since taking the majority in the County Legislature, my Republican colleagues and I have cut the home energy tax, eliminated a planned 16 percent property tax increase and cut spending. We filled a $130 million deficit in 2010 by cutting $170 million in spending and we adopted a no tax increase budget for 2011.The county now has the lowest number of the employees since the 1950s. For years the prior administration and Democratic majority in the legislature failed to make the difficult decisions to rein in spending and instead “kicked the can down the road.” They increased spending by $1 billion in the ten years that they controlled the county and raised taxes by 42%. We have ended their failed tax and spend policies. We will fill a $300 million deficit in the proposed 2012 county budget through spending cuts and reform of government. We are making the tough decisions to “rightsize” the county without raising taxes. We have begun the reform of a broken, bleeding assessment system. We have frozen assessments for four years (with certain exceptions that will allow reductions). This will allow residents to avoid the uncertainty of unpredictable annual changes in their assessments. We have also begun to change the culture in the assessment department to provide more accuracy in assessing properties. We are aggressively resolving tax challenges to limit the amount paid out in refunds. In 2011, this new policy saved $28 million for the county. I support ending the tax refund “guarantee.” Nassau County is the only county in the state (possibly the nation) to repay taxes erroneously paid to school districts, towns and special district due to incorrect assessments. While Nassau County receives only approximately seventeen percent of the real property taxes collected countywide, the county pays one hundred percent of the refunds made as a result of tax grievances. Quite simply, the county is no longer in a position to absorb the expense of paying for refunds for all other local municipalities (excluding villages that do their own assessing). We have also fixed a sewage system that was on the brink of failing. We are taking more police from desk jobs and putting them in the streets. We must continue these policies in the coming years to stabilize county government and build for the future.

Has there been anything learned from Hurricane Irene as far as emergency management?

It appears that by and large the county’s emergency management system functioned well, providing residents with information in advance of the storm as well as offering shelters for those temporarily displaced. The primary lesson from the storm is that LIPA must upgrade its communications system for future events. With the high costs residents pay for their utilities and with all of the means of communication available to LIPA, ratepayers have a right to expect timely and accurate information regarding the restoration of services. There is simply no reason that residents were literally left in the dark as to approximate dates when service would be restored in their area.

What type of development would you like to see for the county’s 77 acres known as the “Hub” including the Coliseum?

I favor a mixed use private development for the Coliseum property, including the renovation of the Coliseum and a new minor league ballpark. The development must be done with private funds and not public money. I believe the best option would be based on the Hempstead zoning model of a development of reasonable density with a mixture or retail space, housing, office space and sports facilities on the property.

Jason Watson

How should the county solve its budget crisis? Should the police unions and the Civil Service Employees Association make contract concessions? Should county services be cut? Should there be a tax increase? Should the county eliminate its guarantee to refund other taxing districts’ (including school districts) share of property taxes paid in error due to county assessment errors?

There is no easy answer to solving the county budget crisis. The simple answer is increase county revenue while decreasing county cost; obviously! Of course the road to that outcome is not easily traveled. However, if we keep that basic concept at the core, introduce innovative ideas while at the same time cut waste and make some reasonable sacrifices and contributions, we could at least make considerable progress toward the targeted end result. There will always be those that only subscribe to immediate gratification. They are only open to answers that they want based on their self-interest without considering the greater end result for all, or at least many. This, coupled with stubborn, political partisanship leads to the lack of progress that we see displayed all too often in government.

Things can’t be absolute during these times of change and difficulty. If some reasonable concessions can be made in order to avoid layoffs, tax hikes or cutting the much needed county programs and services, then they should be considered. Reasonable concessions should not be considered defeat or weakness. They should be considered the right thing to do; a short term solution for more positive outcomes long term. This principle should go both ways.

Raising taxes can’t be an option in a county with some of the highest taxes in the nation. Guarantees to refund districts due to taxes paid in error should be paid if there were assessment errors. However, maybe they can be delayed until some of the county’s fiscal issues can be ameliorated. These fiscal troubles are not the fault of workers or residents of Nassau; but the reality is they are here and they are not going to disappear without well thought out planning, and well executed action on everyone’s part.

Has there been anything learned from Hurricane Irene as far as emergency management?

There should always be things learned from events such as Hurricane Irene. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s because of mistakes or problems. Overall, I was impressed with the proactive steps Nassau took in preparation. I continue to read about measurements that the county has implemented to help the residence of Nassau in the aftermath. The safety and well-being of residence seemed to be a focus of county officials. Our police and fire fighters play a tremendous roll in emergency management and the successful outcomes during these situations too. The elephant in the room is the LIPA situation. The extended outages were extreme. However, we must have some understanding to the magnitude of what occurred. There were clearly issues with the communication to customers or lack thereof. A lot comes down to manpower, time-consuming work, and electricity. If everything was fixed in a day but completed with mistakes that jeopardized public safety, than that would be the convenient complaint of people. We are talking about trees, wires and electricity here.

Other factors were the complacency the public and LIPA have developed from being spared the negative effects from storms for many years. LIPA’s preparations and response was less than adequate. They know improvements must be made. I think the public may have been more understanding if we weren’t paying some of the highest rates in the nation.

What type of development would you like to see for the county’s 77 acres known as the “Hub” including the Coliseum?

Another hot topic, the Coliseum. I’ve been going there since I was a kid. I’ve seen everything from the New York Express to the New York Saints, Metallica to Billy Joel and of course the Islanders. I do think it is important to have a local professional team. The Islanders have been a big part of Long Island. I also believe it’s important to have an accessible event center like the Coliseum but the millions of dollars necessary for development should not rest on the shoulders of some of the highest taxed families in the nation. The “Hub” can be privately owned and privately financed. That may work out great. A newly developed Coliseum, with vendors, shops, etc. The Islanders will still have “home ice”, boat lovers can still go to their boat show, and I can still go to the Coliseum beer fest. Or maybe that space can be developed for something more substantial and more important to all members of Nassau present and future.The “Hub” would be ideal for a renewable energy, “green” education and development park. It can include sections dedicated to wind power, solar power, water power, other renewable energy sources, and a section for education and development. The location is perfect. It’s not a residential. Wind-powered turbines or windmills can be placed there without complaints that they are not aesthetically pleasing, same for solar panels and water collection containers. Also, with Nassau and Hofstra right there, academic programs can partner with the project. There would be potential for strong working relationships with the schools, which may also create ways to incorporate some costs into grants and university money. This development can have short and long-term benefits. Both ideas above can have positive results. One may have more direct benefits for those with particular interest and the other results in positive impacts for everyone. What’s your choice?