A rare opportunity to gain insight into the county's fiscal crisis and ask questions directly of county leaders occurred on Jan. 29, when the Barbara Johnson Democratic Club presented a trio - NIFA board member David Peirez, County Legislator Craig Johnson, and County Comptroller Howard Weitzman - in the club's first public program of the year.
The program, open to the community and welcoming attendees of any party affiliation, was coordinated by club president Hal Doliner. The club, it was explained, was founded to continue and advance the ideals of the late, esteemed County Legislator Barbara Johnson. The club seeks to provide a means of fostering citizen participation in the local political process, meaningful government-public interchange, and public education about issues of concern to community members. At this evening's meeting held at the Congregational Church in Manhasset, all three speakers gave in-depth presentations and had substantial and thoughtful exchanges with those in attendance. The news they imparted about the county's financial troubles was twofold: though called a "desperate situation" by one speaker, with huge deficits and antiquated systems, the Suozzi administration, the legislature, and scores of other highly-talented individuals are engaged round-the-clock in turning the situation around.
NIFA's David Peirez was first to confirm the gloomy current situation, stating, "The situation in Nassau County is even more disastrous than you have even seen, or read, or heard." As part of this "watchdog" group that reviews legislature-approved budgets, Peirez said they've asked the new county administration for a four-year plan by April 1. He mentioned Nassau County Medical Center, the tax assessment issue, and union contracts, as major issues that must be resolved.
The son of the late Barbara Johnson and a dynamic government official in his own right, Legislator Craig Johnson began with some levity; "I never accepted donations from Enron," he quipped. Turning to the serious subject matter, Johnson said that once a Democratic majority was established in the Legislature, "we saw a bipartisan opportunity for fiscal oversight ... There had never before been a four-year fiscal plan." The legislature now works closely with the NIFA oversight board to establish a framework of what needs to be done. Calling County Executive Suozzi a dynamo," Johnson feels the different components of government are in concert, working toward "the same goal." When contemplating reassessment, the legislator indicated, "no one knows what is going to happen - what the impact with be on our taxes ... Nothing was done for 63 years."
Howard Weitzman, the new county comptroller, explained his role as "independent fiscal watchdog" for the county, including auditing, handling the county payroll, etc., as well as monitoring financial affairs. Saying Nassau has $2.8 billion in debt, he remarked that the county "can no longer be borrowing for real estate refunds." Previously, the government did not take appropriate steps, like reducing costs and increasing revenues, he maintained. For the comptroller, issues like resolving the real estate tax problems, the Medical Center, labor relations, the convoluted contract system, and the lack of technology in the county, are most pressing. As an example, Weitzman cited the current policy of providing lifetime health insurance to anyone who has worked for five years for the county or any other part of government as way too costly.
Still, there is reason for optimism, if one is patient. Weitzman feels the problems can be solved. "We have the talent," he said. "There are people in the budget office working seven days a week, until 2 a.m., looking for new sources of revenue," he added, also mentioning that a number of former NYC government leaders have taken major salary cuts, to work to restore Nassau County to fiscal health. "Hopefully in two to four years we'll be discussing something other than Nassau County's fiscal problems," the county comptroller commented.
The Barbara Johnson Democratic Club has additional programs scheduled for this spring and later this year, including a brunch with Rep. Gary Ackerman and other leaders near the end of April. Interested parties should call Hal Doliner at 767-1126 for membership and program information at the end of the month.