Written by Joe Rizza Friday, 25 September 2009 00:00
Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi said it wasn’t easy but he has managed to propose a $2.617 billion budget for the 2010 fiscal year that doesn’t increase property taxes for Nassau County taxpayers. However, his critics say a new tax in the form of an Energy Tax that was imposed earlier this year is unfairly burdening taxpayers who are already paying hefty taxes.
With this budget proposed less than two months before the November election that will pit Suozzi against Republican candidate, Legislator Ed Mangano, who currently represents the 17th Legislative District, the fiscal issues figure to be a key topic in the election, especially with many municipalities struggling with the consequences of a national recession.
“Property taxes on Long Island are way too high,” said Suozzi about the importance of not increasing the county’s share, which amounts to 16.9 percent, of overall property tax bills.
Suozzi had a streak of not increasing county property taxes for five consecutive years before increasing them 3.9 percent in 2009. However, his 2010 budget proposal once again calls for no increase. “We’ve managed to keep the county’s finances stable,” Suozzi said, pointing out that the county has the highest bond rating it has had in 13 years. “The 2010 budget is balanced. It has no property tax increase. It was very difficult to do because we have a lot of increases in expenses that we are mandated.”
With mandated expenses such as employee pay raises negotiated in union contracts and costs associated with providing social services as well as workers compensation costs increasing, in order to present a budget with no property tax increase, Suozzi said he proposed reducing the number of county workers. The proposed 2010 budget calls for 700 less employees than there were in the 2009 budget. “That’s not easy to do. We’ve had to do, for example, do a lot of civilianization in the police department so we can keep the same number of officers on the street but reduce the overall size of the [department],” he said.
The proposed 2010 county budget calls for new revenues that weren’t in the 2009 budget when that passed last year. The county is counting on $16 million in revenue from a cigarette tax that has yet to be passed by the State Legislature. However, Suozzi is confident both houses would pass legislation that would be signed into law by the Governor. In addition, the county is also expecting revenues of $40 from a Home Energy Tax.
Republican members of the Nassau County Legislature believe Suozzi is disingenuous by claiming that property taxes are not increasing since the county executive, along with the Democratic caucus of the Legislature, imposed a 2.5 percent Home Energy Tax on all residential home energy sources including electricity, oil and natural gas.
“The residents of Nassau County will not be fooled. Tom Suozzi cannot hide his tax increases behind the spin of his budget. According to the Nassau County Office of Legislative Budget Review, the Home Energy Tax is the equivalent of a 4.5 percent property tax increase. This tax is hitting the residents of Nassau County right as we enter the winter months,” said Mangano of Bethpage, one of nine Republican Legislators who are in favor of repealing the tax.
Suozzi points out that Nassau County was the only Downstate region of New York that didn’t have the tax. “I would love to get rid of it,” said Suozzi. “Just tell me where the money is going to come from. How are we going to make up the difference?”
The Home Energy Tax was imposed earlier this year to help close a projected deficit in the 2009 budget that came as sales tax revenue declined in the county due to consumers curbing their spending because of a national recession.
In 2009, the county was expecting a level of sales tax revenue it didn’t realize. The county, according to Suozzi, is expecting to end 2009 with a 6 percent decline in sales tax over the previous year. The proposed budget calls for a 1.75 percent increase in sales tax over 2009, which Suozzi believes is a conservative number.
Suozzi said if he were presenting with ways to cut the budget, he would certainly consider them. “[Minority Leader] Peter Schmitt and the Republican Minority [of the Nassau County Legislature] have never once proposed one specific thing they would do specifically. Tell me one thing you want to cut and I will be happy to debate it with you,” Suozzi said.
Republican critics say Suozzi should cut patronage positions from the budget as well as fix an assessment system they feel is broken. “He can cut $22 million out of his own office, which is spending $22 million more a year on appointed, patronage positions than when he took over. He can fix the property tax assessment system that is costing taxpayers $100 a year in errors and $150 million a year in principle and interest on bonding for those errors,” said Mangano.
Suozzi pointed out he has reduced the number of county employees by 1,000 since he took office and can’t reduce it any further. “I’m already at the breaking point as far as delivering services to people,” he said.
Suozzi admits the assessment system can be improved and vowed to fix the system with the current assessor who is appointed by the county executive. He said residential assessment yield refunds that are below the national average so the problem lies with commercial assessments.
According to a review of the county’s multi-year financial plan by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), issued in May, the county continues to borrow for the payment of a large portion of its certiorari claims and plans to continue its borrowing program through at least 2012.
Nassau County Comptroller Howard Weitzman said the 2010 budget would put everyone to the test. “The proposed spending plan comes on the heels of unprecedented fiscal challenges due to the national recession. I will carefully review the administration’s proposal to ensure that the 2010 budget is both achievable and balanced. We expect to deliver our report to the legislature in mid-October,” Weitzman said.
The Nassau County Legislature must vote on the plan by October 30.