Legislator Brian Muellers has an agenda: to serve the people of the 18th district. First on his list is helping villages get their fair share of the county sales tax money. While the villages thought they were going to get $12 million of the two percent sales tax returned to Nassau County by the state, County Executive Tom Gulotta took the item out of the budget at the 11th hour. The 1999 Legislature passed the budget without benefiting the villages.
Mr. Muellers said he hopes to return a smaller figure in the first year of his tenure. He is the chairman of the Towns, Villages and Cities Committee. The latter designation was added to the scope of the committee at his request, to deal with all the municipalities in the county.
Brian Muellers spoke as he met with members of his staff and the press on Friday, Jan. 11 at the Book Mark in Oyster Bay.
His second priority is open space. Given that this district has the most open space - it is important to preserve it, he said. He is on the NC Planning, Development & Environment Committee and recently heard an open space plan presented by the Nassau County Planning Commission. Last year they took a full inventory of every undeveloped parcel of land, both publicly and privately owned. Nearly 50,000 acres were identified, with much of it in the 18th district.
The commission also looked at natural resources, such as wildlife and habitat areas, and what impact development could have on these areas. The commission is reviewing Phase I of an Open Space Plan for the county.
Mr. Muellers said they are looking for outside funding to preserve open space and are working with the Nature Conservancy. The name of Charles Wang came up in the discussion. Mr. Muellers said Cove Neck Mayor Tom Zoller told him Mr. Wang has purchased acres in that village for preservation purposes. He also purchased acres in Plainview from Nassau County - for preservation.
Third on his list is working with Glen Cove on problems with their school taxes. "They are one third of the population of the district," he said. Glen Cove lost tax money, about $10 million in tax certioraris - the return of tax money - mostly from the commercial area. They also lose out on state taxes because of a law passed in 1948 defining a city-school district. While Glen Cove fits the definition, Long Beach does not. The result of the law is that Glen Cove sends school tax money to the state but gets no funds back from them while Long Beach is not affected.
On the list is a public works project of Nassau County for the Bayville Bridge, which it maintains. They need a bond issue for ongoing maintenance, he said.
He is also aware of problems on West Shore Road, along Oyster Bay Harbor in Mill Neck, which he said is dangerous because of flooding which causes erosion. It is Bayville and Centre Island's one of two ways out of their northern areas. "Mayor Siegel is really passionate about it. She really fears for her village," he said.
Another concern is the area where Glen Cove Road crosses 25A. He said it wasn't actually in his district, but said it was important because of its geographic location at the entrance to Glen Cove. All the local mayors have objections to how the area is developing - in spite of the traffic. It is the second most trafficked area in the county, next to Old Country Road. T.J. Maxx may go for a second floor, he said, and the mayors are against it.
Restoring social service cuts is another of his priorities - "To stave off the social service cuts damage." He is calling for a 50 percent restoration of the funding. He said he was told by affected agencies that restoring that amount would allow them to keep staff whole, while looking for private funding.
He said they are currently looking to put a face on the problems being caused by the cuts. They took photos at his public forum held in Glen Cove and are sending them letters written by residents being affected - all of which will be sent to Mr. Gulotta.
The County Executive did not attend the public forum held on Saturday, Feb. 5 or when people marched, 1,000-strong in Mineola, he said. "People think the legislature is responsible for the cuts," he said, but said the budget is the responsibility of Mr. Gulotta.
"It's not just the problem of a small group of people - its kids on the edge," he said. Will a young person go to Juvenile Hall or go on to be a Regents Scholar or on the streets.
"For every $1 spent you save $6," he said. It cost $80,000 for a child to spend a year in Juvenile Hall, a fraction of what it costs to run an after school program. This is everybody's problem," he said, adding it costs $40,000 to keep an adult in jail for one year.
Another aspect of the cuts in social service money is that it is matched by state funds. Cutting out county funding means losing state money too. Mr. Muellers said he is talking to Assemblymen David Sidikman and Tom DiNapoli to see if the state would not touch social service funds to be sent for social services in the county. "It could be an $18 million loss," he said.
The $9.8 million cut from social services is out of a $60 million deficit isn't that much, said Mr. Muellers, although he said Democratic estimates say there is actually a $125 to $165 million budget gap.
Mr. Muellers said in the Democrat's search to find solutions for the budget problems - some things will be unpopular, but they will be fairer and not as regressive as the transfer tax.
He said the NYS Legislature may rescind their permission for the county to impose the transfer tax making its re-instatement a moot issue - as a possible solution.
The reassessment of the county is a possible solution to gain funding. The current assessment has resulted in a debt of $150 million a year, he said. Eighty-eight percent of the certiorari cases are from business, he said: only 12 percent are residential. "Standard & Poor's said they want to see the county reassessed!" Mr. Muellers said he believes this is the time to do the reassessment.
"I think we've gotten to the point of acceptance. Public awareness (of the county's fiscal problems) is at a peak," he said. "We've run out of hospitals to sell. We have to correct the problems with long term solutions.
"New York City and Long Beach re-assess regularly," he said.
"This and revenue enhancement will involve difficult choices. So, communication is important. People have to know it is for the long-term picture."
The Democrats are currently taking a good look at the county spending practices. Presently, the county is handing out $1.2 million in dinner money to county employees who work more than two hours over their shift. Union workers receive $15 and non-union workers receive $20 - with no receipts required. "
The money is treated as a reimbursement and therefore is not taxed. Nonunion workers got the stipend in 1995, after union workers first got the perk. County Executive Thomas Gulotta said he tried to eliminate the $20 payment to non-union workers but it remained in the budget. He said he will re-submit the item.
Mr. Gulotta, as CEO of the county, chooses who gets paid and who gets a car, the lucrative jobs, perks and contracts, said Mr. Muellers.
Linda Murray, a special assistant to Mr. Gulotta earns $113,390 a year. Her meal money stipend last year was $3,540. She began working for Mr. Gulotta 26 years ago, when he was in Albany as an assemblyman.
Mr. Gulotta also controls $150 million in personal service contracts - for real estate and law firms.
"We've got to uncover the waste," said Mr. Muellers.
There were also meal money problems at the county jail, where employees received $200,000 for meal stipends last year. In two hearings on the county jail they uncovered overtime problems, mis-use of vehicles and food service.
The Democrats have asked for a list of county cars which they still haven't received.
Presently three public works officials have been given Ford Expeditions with packages - they are a luxury recreational vehicle, said Mr. Muellers. He said there is no emergency response needed from them - therefore, no need for the SUVs. Additionally, the men weren't declaring the cars as income - which they should. Overall he said the cars are costing the county about $1/2 million.
Mr. Muellers said he will meet regularly with village mayors. They are very grateful to be included, he said. "They felt ignored." He was able to show them the deal package relating to their tax revenue sharing, which they had never seen before. Open space and road repair are two of their issues.
Mr. Muellers is also organizing a Citizen Advisory Committee with a cross section of residents including: environmental, educators; early childhood educators; former mayors; village residents; civic associations members and members of the business community. He plans to meet with them regularly to solicit input on what they see as needed and to have them send back word to their constituencies.
He plans to work on educating the public on the West Nile Virus with a forum held nearer the spring. "People have to take responsibility in their own yards and homes to avoid the need to spray," he said. "If people all go out and dump standing water that will help. The mosquito that carries the virus only lives in a 200 yard radius (of the standing water where they are born). So the disease is limited in its effect."
Mr. Muellers said he fought the proposed Glenwood Landing ferry because he doesn't see it as appropriate there. He has gone on record of supporting the ferry in Glen Cove. In response to a question by Glen Cove Record Pilot Editor Zefy Christopolous, he said "I've learned very quickly what a legislator can and can't do - when they have no authority. You have to concentrate on what you can do.
"Every politician has to learn - you have to choose your battles."
He said the two locations are very different, and that the opposition had since 1995 to come out. The Coalition to Preserve Hempstead Harbor had given their tacit approval of the Glen Cove project 18 months ago, he said. They are in the process of formalizing that opinion, he said.
Mr. Muellers said the Democratic majority asked for cellular phone information from the legislators. All Republican legislators received them, but no Democrats had. "We've asked them to turn them in. Four are still missing."
The Democrats, in the majority, have cut their staff funding by 10 percent. The Republicans haven't reduced their staff spending.
Making it harder to control spending, Tom Gulotta unilaterally rescinded the authority of the Legislature to approve service contracts over $25,000.
Mr. Gulotta said he had a verbal agreement with Presiding Officer Bruce Blakeman but with him gone, so is the agreement.
Mr. Muellers said he is talking to the Parks Commissioner about having dog runs. Rather than cracking down on dog owners who let their dogs run free, he said it would be better to recognize there is a need to provide dog runs.
The Democrats are seeking good advice on how to handle the county finances. The difficult part is convincing the county executive of what needs to be done, he said. "It is to Mr. Gulotta's benefit to solve the problem - he'll get the credit," said Mr. Muellers. "We're willing to share the credit. We both know we have to work on solutions."
The next financial issues under discussion are the Hub and the Coliseum. He said Mr. Gulotta had a meeting with Al D'Amato to which no one else was invited - not Neil Lewis nor the Islanders, nor others who have been working on the Hub plan.
Mr. Muellers said he favors a scheme that would have residents shopping in their own local downtowns on the weekends, rather then coming in to a central hub creating a traffic nightmare.
Monorails were being considered to help the hub area, but he said NYS Governor George Pataki has cut his transportation budget by $3 million next year.