Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman spoke before a local chamber of commerce meeting on April 2 at Carlyle on the Green in Bethpage.
The comptroller began by discussing the Nassau Rx Card Program, a free prescription-drug discount card. It is available to all Nassau residents, regardless of age, income, or insured status and requires no enrollment forms or fees. The card saves residents an average of 24 percent off retail prescription drug prices, which is roughly $20 per prescription. Since 2004, this program has saved residents over $12 million.
"The best part is, it doesn't cost the county anything," Weitzman added. "The program is totally subsidized by the pharmacy industry. The program works. It's one of the best in the county."
Call 877-321-2652 or visit www.caremark.com/nassaurx for more information or to print out a card.
"I don't have to tell you we're in a recessionary period right now," Weitzman stated. "This is a very difficult time."
Weitzman attributed the tough times to the banking, mortgage and insurance problems that "drove the economy off a cliff."
"There has been a total freeze-up in the credit system," Weitzman explained. "This country runs on credit, it's always run on credit. And if banks aren't lending to businesses, businesses can't grow. And if you don't grow, you die in business."
People in this country have always borrowed money to finance their purchases, the comptroller added.
"We've been living beyond our means now for probably 20-30 years," he said.
Historically, the savings rate in the country was zero percent. It was 5 percent last month.
"People are scared," he said.
Weitzman continued to discuss how this impacts the local economy.
"In Nassau County, it's not that bad," he continued. "We have an unemployment rate in the county now of 7 percent, which is twice our historical average, but it's still significantly below the national average."
There were over 1,000 foreclosures last year in Nassau County.
"This has to be looked at in the totality of 400,000 homes in Nassau County," he added. "This means 93 percent of the people in Nassau County are working and most people are not being foreclosed. Yet you look down Main Street and you see all the stores that are closing. You see what's happening at the malls; nobody's going. Why? Because people are afraid."
The biggest source of revenue of the county government is sales tax. According to Weitzman, sales tax is $1 billion out of the $2.5 billion budget. While 2008 saw a surplus of $2 million, "we lost $38 million off our budget in sales taxes."
This is the first time since 1990 the sales tax revenue declined.
"Because of that, we projected for this year, no growth in sales tax at all," he added.
This $100 million loss in sales tax, combined with other revenue losses such as mortgage recording taxes, park fees, golf fees, recreational fees and an increase in expenses leaves a possible gap in the 2009 budget of $120 to $160 million.
Weitzman said midyear property tax increases are not an option for County Executive Tom Suozzi.
"He has a three-fold plan for getting us through this," Weitzman said.
- Economic stimulus payments from the federal government
"We have been promised approximately $80 million of which $45 million we can use for 2009," he explained.
- Reduce spending
"The county is reducing its spending in recognition of this," Weitzman said. "He [Suozzi] has asked for labor concessions of approximately $50 million. We believe we're going to get that. Four out of five of our unions have verbally agreed to labor savings devices for 2009. The non-union workforce and elected officials will follow suit."
However, some of the unions still have to vote on this.
- Help from Albany
The county has sought permission from the state to raise revenue.
"We asked for permission to put up 50 red light cameras, surcharge to put on speeding tickets and to raise the sales tax on cigarettes," Weitzman explained. "All together that would've raised about $30 million; the biggest portion being raised by the sales tax increase on cigarettes."
On April 7 the state Senate passed bills that will allow Nassau and Suffolk County to install red-light cameras.
"They refuse to give us permission to raise the sales tax on cigarettes," Weitzman added. "I understand we did get approval to put the surcharge on speeding tickets and that's about $6 million."
Weitzman said the county is looking in other areas of government to save as well.
"We're going after the rest, so I'm hoping we're going to see more savings in the future," he added.
Weitzman mentioned the natural advantages of Nassau County as what would pull "us out of this recession."
Beaches, golf courses, close proximity to Manhattan, great schools and safe communities were included in his list of "all the things that people really want."
He said people should take advantage of opportunities such as a decrease in housing prices and low mortgage rates.
"The silver lining is that young people can now afford houses," he added.
The comptroller also discussed how the State's new budget deal will affect Nassau.
"Unfortunately the news is not great for Long Island," he said.
While the STAR Program [reductions on property taxes] is still in effect, Long Island is losing the STAR Rebate Program. These were the rebate checks residents had been receiving for the past few years.
Weitzman discussed the possibility of creating a Property Tax Circuit Breaker program. This is designed to prevent massive property taxes by limiting the amount of property taxes paid based upon the total income of the household.
"This is really aimed at lower income people and people on fixed incomes," Weitzman explained. "For example, if the circuit breaker was 10 percent and your income was $50,000, you wouldn't have to pay more than $5,000 in property taxes. And there would be caps."
School aid to Long Island has increased a small amount; however, Weitzman said the schools used the stimulus money to "keep their spending going."