Whither Reform?

Too often we look to find the solution for symptoms instead of examining and treating the root causes of an illness. In the cases of property tax cap and the Coliseum development, the prescribed reforms are merely masking the diseases that plague both patients.

Governor Andrew CuomoBig things are happening in Albany. After passing a timely budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has come to an agreement in principle with state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to pass a 2-percent property tax cap in New York State, the most aggressive cap of its kind in the nation. Gov. Cuomo Part Deux is making the most of his fresh political capital by making good on his campaign promises to restore fiscal stability to the Empire State.

The economic recovery on Long Island, as it is everywhere, is tenuous. Though I’m told the recession ended some time ago, the only apparent indication is the continuing progress of the stock market, which seems to march to its own beat irrespective of reality. Here on the ground things seem to be pretty much the same, save for a few glimmering lights at the end of the tunnel that may still be flashes from an oncoming train.

One such glimmer is the movement on the core project inside the Nassau Hub in Uniondale. The proposed redevelopment of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is beyond the talking stages and coming up for a vote. It’s the ultimate “put up or shut up” moment being sold to taxpayers by the strangest of bedfellows. Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and New York Islanders owner Charles Wang have put forth a proposal to Nassau residents to redevelop the Coliseum through taxpayer-financed bonds in a referendum tentatively set for Aug. 1. No casino, no mass transit, no retail and no backsies. Just a straight-up, publicly financed deal to take a financial leap of faith on Long Island’s only professional sports franchise.

Enter Albany. The only things standing in the way of this proposal, at long last, are a jaded electorate and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), a decade-old creature of the state Legislature created to save us from ourselves. The proposed bond is tentatively pegged at around $400 million to finance the Coliseum and an adjacent parcel for a minor league baseball team. Regardless of the outcome on Aug. 1, ultimately NIFA will have final say on whether the county can pull the trigger.

Conservative pundit and NIFA board member, George Marlin, may have already tipped NIFA’s hand in a recent Newsday op-ed, by saying this type of publicly financed stadium deal is in large measure lousy for the taxpayer.

There is a striking parallel between the property tax cap issue and the proposed Coliseum plan. In theory, both are good ideas. We taxpayers need extraordinary relief and future economic security. We need movement on the Hub to put the trades to work and at least begin reimagining the geographic focal point of Nassau County. When taken at face value, both propositions seem fairly obvious, and the political machinations to make progress on both appear to be nothing less than Herculean given the staggering inertia that has weighed them down for so long. But like everything in life, it’s more complicated than passing a bill or staging a referendum.

Too often we look to find the solution for symptoms instead of examining and treating the root causes of an illness. In the cases of property tax cap and the Coliseum development, the prescribed reforms are merely masking the diseases that plague both patients.

There are two sides of the property tax coin in Nassau County: schools and local government. School districts are understandably perturbed by the proposed tax cap as it eliminates their ability to levy tax increases according to an individual district’s needs. Many argue that it also places an undo burden on poorer districts that at times require greater tax increases due to a significantly lower tax base than their wealthier neighbors. With rising health care and pension costs for the teachers and staff, and little in the way of wage reform on Long Island, school districts will indeed be under the gun to do business differently. Taxpayers with children in the district will be caught in the crossfire for several years should the cap pass the Legislature as proposed because many districts will be loath to make systematic changes at first, instead they’ll impose drastic cuts to school programs in order to prove a point.

The smaller, but more pernicious aspect of the tax system in Nassau County, however, is the largely misunderstood local government levy. The tax certiorari issue, the process of grieving your property tax assessment to reduce your payment, is frequently employed in large part by commercial property owners. It’s a standard process replicated in municipalities across the nation but Nassau County still has an antiquated ruling on the books, referred to as the “county guarantee” dating back to 1948, whereby the county is required to cover whatever portion of the reduction is allocated to the schools.

The Mangano administration pushed legislation through the Nassau Legislature last October to eliminate the guarantee by 2012; predictably the ruling is being challenged in court by 41 districts. The school districts contend that more than $50 million annually would be shifted toward the school districts from the county budget, a move that would provide relief to the county but not the local taxpayer who would still be on the hook for the refunds through the school tax levy. The introduction of the tax cap adds yet another wrinkle to the equation if schools are required to take on this burden without the ability to raise taxes in accordance with the amount of the refunds.

To fix this problem, Nassau County and NIFA need to act boldly and enact a variance clause to the tax certiorari process whereby any assessment within a margin of error of 10 percent results in no change to the assessment. The county has estimated that 90 percent or more of all challenges fall within this range. This one simple ruling, in conjunction with the courts upholding the legislation to reform the county guarantee, would not only properly allocate payments of tax refunds to the original beneficiaries of the funds, but it would finally reform a broken system and eliminate the need to continually cover the refunds through bonding that has no offsetting future revenue stream.

Absent this type of reform, every project that might be aided by or require government borrowing and assistance such as the Coliseum project will always be viewed in a negative light because taxpayers are overburdened as it is. As residents we should be able to make an emotional decision to keep our only professional sports franchise on Long Island and the practical decision of redeveloping the Hub without the prevailing sense that somehow the other shoe is about to drop. The “other shoe,” by the way, is called reassessment. Understand that there are two parts to the property tax equation: rate and assessment. Just because we are moving toward capping the rates doesn’t mean the county can’t simply reassess your property at a higher value to raise your taxes. 

So while Albany seems to have found its rhythm for the moment, we need our state legislators to take the next difficult step of fixing the underlying structural imbalances we face in order to let us  make the right decisions for our future.

The Heavy House Part III: Return of the Jed, I

lukeskywalkerThis is the final installment of my “Heavy House” column series covering the Lighthouse Project, but only the beginning of our coverage in the Press. A column allows the creative freedom to express opinions about this or any subject, but our news coverage will provide greater insight into the progress of what may or may not be a turning point in the future of development on Long Island.

For the moment, acrimony between the various stakeholders of this project is taking center stage. While I relish the role of armchair warrior because of the clarity it provides, it is also an uncomfortable seat when you see smart people who can’t seem to get out of their own way. I’m talking about the people so close to this project that it appears they can’t see the forest through the trees. County Executive Tom Suozzi has grand visions for a new suburbia. Charles Wang has the land, assets and means to make significant strides toward smart growth. Scott Rechler has the experience and ability to re-imagine our community. Kate Murray has the tools and political support to move mountains in the Town of Hempstead. And Long Islanders have the need to move toward a more intelligent future. In short, we all want the same thing.

When Robert Moses planned our little slice of heaven he did so with all the resources and facts that were available to him. One can easily argue that his motives were provincial and at times even racist, but no one can dispute his legacy of exerting unprecedented control over some of the largest public works projects in the United States. The challenge before us today is to re-plan the Island based upon dwindling natural resources and a crumbling infrastructure. This takes great vision. With that, I humbly (OK, obnoxiously) propose several guidelines as a launching pad for a new tomorrow with the Lighthouse Project as a proving ground.

Open space. Instead of a ballpark or other manicured garden areas, let nature exist, well, naturally. The brilliance of Frederick Olmstead’s Central Park design is that is was “created” as the Earth intended it to be. It wasn’t carved in pieces—it was enhanced. We have a tendency to pave over everything in sight and work diligently to recreate so-called natural landscapes that require an incredible amount of energy to maintain. It’s interesting to note that it was actually a young Robert Moses who revitalized Central Park in the 1930s after it had fallen into disrepair under siege from rampant vandalism.

Smart Growth. The basic theory of smart growth is to create an environment where people can live, work and play. I would add one more item to the list— harvest. Community growing areas are tantamount to the re-visioning process. Instead of putting in fountains and statues, set aside a couple of acres to harvest the land. Take Will Allen (www.growingpower.org) from Milwaukee who supplies locally grown produce to thousands of urban families from city-based gardens. Given our natural resources, can’t we do the same or better?

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). A building code is not a master plan. Long Island needs a plan that encourages pockets of development that are energy efficient or—best case scenario—energy independent. Instead of carping at developers for attempting to maximize profits through high-density designs, encourage them to do so. Want to build a six-story building? Current building codes essentially mandate basic LEED certification as it is. Want to build 10 stories? Build to the Gold LEED standard. Want 16 stories? Build to Platinum LEED standards. Want to add in commercial space and, oh I don’t know, a coliseum? Get serious about cleaning and recycling water to protect how our aquifers are recharged. It’s like creating the tangible version of carbon offsets. More than any other incentive—from low-cost bond issuances to PILOT programs—developers want density. The greater the density a developer seeks the more they should be required to build in a self-sufficient and sustainable manner.

There are scores of topics to be considered, with these three only scratching the surface. While this is the last Lighthouse installment in this particular column series, we intend to highlight many more of these types of initiatives. If you listen closely and eliminate the politics from this project you will realize that everyone wants the same thing: Safe, smart, efficient and environmentally sensitive development that will shape the way we interact with the land and help create a sense of community. Arguing against any of these principals would be silly. Unfortunately, everyone is so busy posturing and yelling that it appears the voice of reason is being drowned out.

There is one underlying theme to every single issue that surrounds the Lighthouse Project. That is the inescapable fact that Long Island has no master plan. Robert Moses can’t help us now and frankly he probably wouldn’t even know where to begin. For example, the last comprehensive study on our groundwater supply was the 208 Study in 1977. I was 4 years old. Our idea of development has been strip malls, single-family housing units and golf courses, which brings me back to the point of the first installment in this series: We need a new regional planning board.

This is about so much more than the Lighthouse; as the oldest suburb in the nation we will live and die by what happens next. No matter what, the other suburban areas in this nation will be watching and taking our lead. The only question is whether they will be following it or walking away from it. Either we come together to establish a sustainable plan for the future or sit by idly while the youth of Long Island continue to vote with their feet and leave us in droves.