With County Executive Thomas Gulotta's fiscal year 2000 budget proposal under heavy scrutiny and legislative elections less than three weeks away, Democrats and Republicans on the Nassau Legislature are continuing to tout their parties' ideas for dealing with the county's multi-million dollar budget deficit.
Democrats last week announced that a petition drive has brought in close to 3,000 supporters for a Fiscal Oversight Board, while the GOP promoted a new year-round tax assessment review board. The mechanisms are key parts of each party's recommendations for eliminating the budget hole, which had ballooned to over $300 million over the last few years and remains about $140 million for fiscal year 2000.
The fiscal oversight board sought by the Democrats would serve to scrutinize the county executive's budgets, according to Legislator Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), minority leader for the legislature. "This is the first step in paving the way for the legislature to hold a public hearing so that the fiscal oversight board issue can be heard," Jacobs said in a release to the press. She was joined in a Mineola press conference on Oct. 5 by fellow Democratic legislators, as well as New Hyde Park resident Michael Black and Manhasset resident Tina Sackman, supporters of the petition drive.
Jacobs noted that the drive was started in reaction to the Republican Legislative Majority's refusal in August to consider a law to create the oversight board. The GOP opted instead to create a Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel, which Democrats believe lacks teeth. Under the county's charter, a citizen's petition drive can force the legislature to consider a law. The petition must be signed by at least 2,000 voters, with no less than 50 voters from each legislative district.
The oversight board is a major component of the Democrats' plan to reduce the deficit. Dubbed "Save Nassau County," the program also calls for an end to the controversial one percent real estate transfer tax introduced by Gulotta, wasteful patronage and personal service contracts. In addition, it pushes for the requirement of competitive bidding for real property sales and the sharing of the county's sales tax with incorporated villages.
The year-round Tax Assessment Review Board spotlighted through press release by the GOP last week, is expected to save $5 million to $10 million a year. The program was first revealed as part of the Republican Deficit Elimination Plan unveiled in early September, which also calls for $40 million in spending cuts, use of the real estate transfer tax, and unspecified new recurring revenue to plug the gap.
The new assessment review board was recently created by a state law pursued by Nassau Republican Legislators. By expanding the board's review time from just a few months to 12 months a year, it will reduce the payments of tax refunds, the bonding the county does to pay them, and interest on the bonding, according to the program's proponents. "We are simplifying a process for Nassau County taxpayers who are currently footing the bill that results from interest being paid on interest," Legislator Bruce Blakeman (R-Woodmere), presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, said in a release to the press last week. Appointments to the year-round board are expected to be made shortly.
The party announcements made this week come after Democrats unveiled their deficit reduction plans last week, and Republicans symbolically shredded Gulotta's budget proposal, which was also sharply criticized by Nassau County Comptroller Fred Parola, also a Republican. Rather than following the guidelines outlined by the Republican Deficit Elimination Plan, the county executive's plan borrows against the county's share of federal tobacco settlement funds, and raises the police district tax by $61 per homeowner, in order to close the budget gap. It does also trim the salaries of department heads and elected officials - as had been recommended by the GOP legislators - as well as cuts department budgets, and consolidates departments.
The Republican legislators scrapped Gulotta's plan, and vowed to draft a fiscal blueprint of their own which does not raise taxes unless it first eliminates wasteful spending, including unnecessary "patronage," and realistically estimates expenses. They also promised to take steps to get back the confidence of Wall Street, which has downgraded the county's bond rating to near junk status in light of the fiscal crisis. Jacobs noted that the GOP legislators' proposal to take a critical look at patronage jobs was a step toward putting the county back on firm fiscal footing. But, she added that it is also something that had been proposed by Democrats - and ignored by Republicans - since March.
Nevertheless, as the Democrats and Republicans continue to promote their party's ideas for dealing with the county's fiscal woes, they have indicated that they want to work together to hammer out an acceptable county budget. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on two dates with great political significance to them - Oct. 30, the legislature's deadline for adopting a final budget, and Nov. 2, Election Day. All 19 members of the Nassau County Legislature are up for re-election.