Leadership on Long Island (Or Lack Thereof)

What drives me batty is that, if nothing else, Mangano had the playbook in his hands. Anyone paying attention knew that 2011 would be the year everything blew up in Nassau County. Instead of dilly-dallying about whether his administration could find a magic revenue pill to salvage the day, Mangano should have shouted, blamed and threatened the world and thrown himself at the mercy of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) within the first 100 days of his term…

There's someone missing from Newsday's photo of County Executive's with budget trouble. Can you guess who it is?

Let’s bring this year in with a bang and drill deep into the black hole that is the leadership void on Long Island. It’s time to take aim at those at the helm of our ship and offer some honest feedback, which is difficult to come by of late.

Quite frankly, considering the enormous challenges we face, I’ve been trying to mind my Ps and Qs while watching and waiting for Long Island’s leaders to genuinely coalesce throughout 2010. Now, just moments into the New Year, my bottled up frustration has punched out my cork of politeness and sent it ricocheting across the room. The bubble that broke the cork? Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano.

Mangano came to office as the underdog archetype with the weight of the world, or at least the Island, on his shoulders.

Yet instead of hoisting up Nassau like Atlas, he has allowed himself to be driven into the ground by a thousand ball-pein hammers. When former County Executive Tom Suozzi was first elected, he shouted at the heavens, took the blame game to new heights and threatened union leaders and lawmakers alike. He made such a racket he was able to muscle through a double-digit property tax increase and have everyone thank him in the process. His political acumen and prowess were matched only by his hubris.

Eight years and several hundreds of millions in blown surplus dollars later, Glen Cove’s favorite son was ousted from office by the demure Mangano, who is as modest as Suozzi was pugnacious. What drives me batty is that, if nothing else, Mangano had the playbook in his hands. Anyone paying attention knew that 2011 would be the year everything blew up in Nassau County. Instead of dilly-dallying about whether his administration could find a magic revenue pill to salvage the day, Mangano should have shouted, blamed and threatened the world and thrown himself at the mercy of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) within the first 100 days of his term and offered the following statement:

After reviewing the catastrophic state of affairs my predecessor (Tom Suozzi) left behind, I have determined that Nassau County is, to put it simply, screwed. Unlike him (Tom Suozzi), I cannot in good conscience raise taxes on the good people of this county—as was my pledge—as they have already paid more than their fair share for Nassau’s (his) political misdeeds. Therefore, I have requested the full assistance of NIFA and will submit to their recommendations completely so we may put our troubles behind us. God bless us all.

But, no. Mangano instead took the high road toward the inevitable, and he has created his own political nightmare to match our fiscal reality. He did such a terrible job explaining to Nassau residents how the former administration taxed its way to a surplus it later spent without fixing any of the structural problems that have plagued the county that even Newsday is comparing Mangano to Tom Gulotta, and omitting the Suozzi years entirely.

In other news slightly to the east of Nassau, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is still fighting with everyone.

If you have any questions for either Mangano or Levy, you’ll have your chance to ask them at the Long Island Association’s County Executive’s Report at the (where else?) Crest Hollow Country Club on January 12! Which brings me to the next same-old-tune on my hit parade: the LIA. It’s been relatively quiet at the Island’s most prestigious association so I decided to take a gander at their website to see what’s new on the agenda. Let’s see…last entry under “Legislative Action”—2007. Check. “Regional Priorities?” Housing. Just housing. Check. Oh, wait, you can peruse their new ideas under the helpful heading, “Innovate Long Island,” and read a report from 2006 because, you know, not much has happened in the world since then. In fairness, Long Islanders can get some gardening tips from the latest blog entry of March 25, 2010. At least we know they’re not wasting any money on a webmaster.

My most recent “OMG” moment came a few days ago reading one of Jim Bernstein’s business columns in Newsday. Bernstein interviewed LIA head honcho, Kevin Law, one of the brightest and most amiable figures on the Island. Asked what he was dreaming up for the New Year, Law said he was thinking about “a destination center” that “Long Islanders and tourists could use as a meeting place, a place to shop and dine, and also a place where the New York Islanders could play hockey.”

Do you hear that sound? That’s the sound of Charles Wang beating a hockey stick against The Lighthouse Development model, taking his puck and going home. Let’s just pretend Kevin didn’t say that and move on. (I love the guy so he gets a pass. I’m playing favorites, I know…but it’s my column.)

We’re better than this, or at least we should be. We don’t even need new leaders, we just need them all pulling the oars at the same time in one direction.

As for the answer to the question above… Ta Da!

Peek-A-Boo! Tom Suozzi, former Nassau County Executive and current Newsday/Cablevision Consultant!

The New Long Island Association

Workforce housing hard to find? Brain drain getting you down? Tired of high taxes? There’s only one answer to all the issues the LIA has been dancing around: Money. The only way to get more of it into the economy is to attract more high-paying job opportunities into the region and create an environment where companies aren’t punished when they grow.

Kevin Law, the outgoing president and chief executive of the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), has been chosen to lead the Long Island Association (LIA) in the wake of Matt Crosson’s departure. The lackluster performance of the LIA in recent years presents a challenge to the talented Law, but he is uniquely qualified to run the Island’s largest representative organization. Talent alone, however, won’t revive this body.

The LIA lacks a sense of purpose. While its board is comprised of an impressive array of successful business leaders, it has failed to coalesce in a decisive manner and make inroads on any specific issue. The most noticeable handicap in this respect is an unwieldy board size—there are 57 members. The Island’s biggest organization is top-heavy. This has created a problem of perception in that no one really knows what the LIA stands for. It’s time to hunker down and get tight on a handful of specific items instead of attempting to plug every hole in the dam.

Kevin Law, outgoing president and CEO of LIPA, is the new head of the LIA. But will he take the organization in the direction it needs to go?

Evidence of the LIA’s inability to marshal its resources in support of, or opposition to, a particular issue is in its governance structure. There are 16 separate committees ranging from small business to world trade, insurance to homeland defense and everywhere in between. No one organization can adequately micromanage this many priorities. Because Long Island is, by design, a sprawling set of disparate communities—each with its own gravitational center and culture—it’s nearly impossible to manage any one-size-fits-all plan.

Therefore the most immediate and effective declaration Kevin Law can make when officially taking the helm is to plant his flag squarely on the subject of economic development. Workforce housing hard to find? Brain drain getting you down? Tired of high taxes? There’s only one answer to all the issues the LIA has been dancing around: Money. The only way to get more of it into the economy is to attract more high-paying job opportunities into the region and create an environment where companies aren’t punished when they grow.

The art of messaging is critical when running an organization with the breadth and scope of the LIA. If Law can stay on message and focus on spreading the gospel of economic development, he will conquer the first difficult task of establishing a singular perception of the LIA. It’s a lot easier to negotiate with those who control the purse strings when they know why you’re there and what you’re asking for. This raises the next obvious question: What are we asking for?

I’ll keep it simple.

The LIA has been so focused on raising funds by hosting rubber-chicken dinners with generals and ex-presidents to cover for its own financial issues, it can’t focus on ours. Have one gala and a golf tournament if you need to get it out of your system then spread the wealth by getting more companies to pay dues. If you need extra funds, get them from the Regional Planning Commission—they’re not doing anything anyway.

Once the LIA’s bills are paid, Law can develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the two things we cannot escape: taxes and utilities.

Regarding the former: The only way to reduce, or at the very least hold, taxes on the Island is to woo more companies to do business here. This means coordinating the efforts of every agency with the ability to offer economic incentives and developing a press kit for Long Island. The Canon deal provided the blueprint. With Long Island’s press kit in hand, Kevin Law should be on the road six months out of the year visiting every burgeoning technology company in America with an iota of potential. I’m confident he can out-sell the guy from Bergen County, NJ or Lancaster, PA and convince some cool companies to come here. (Kev, call me. I know a great relocation specialist.)

On utilities: It’s payback time. The government rammed Shoreham down our throats then figured out we didn’t want it. Worse yet, they stuck us with the tab. Our utility bills will never go down with a $6 billion debt load we can’t shake. Therefore, I propose that every elected official on the Island sit down with Chuck Schumer and demand that the federal government commit $600 million per year for the next 10 years to principal debt reduction. In turn, we will agree to hold LIPA rates flat for the same period. The resulting positive spread will be reserved for retrofitting commercial and residential properties with renewable technology through LIPA’s existing rebate program. By 2020 the debt will be eradicated, our utility costs will be dramatically lower and then we can fold LIPA and get rid of a couple of power plants.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Now, on to that peace in the Middle East issue. It’s been on my to-do list for ages.