Not So Fast, 2012

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few.

Gearing up for 2012, Long Island let’s not forget about 2011.
Gop Candidate FieldThe heroic mission of the U.S Navy Seals to rid the world of the face of terrorism has created a new paradigm for the 2012 elections. Before this global event consumed the national political headlines the term “birther” was rekindled by Donald Trump’s potential bid for the Country’s CEO job which monopolized weeks of national broadcasts, only to have POTUS Obama hold a live news conference to finally provide his birth certificate after two years of countless debate, articles and even books on the topic. The seriousness of the global threats facing our nation weighed against such previous headlines certainly re-shifts the current debate played out in the news cycle.

Over the last several weeks we’ve had former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announce their exploratory committees and GOP power broker Haley Barbour surprisingly bow out of running. Shortly we’ll see if former Utah Governor John Huntsman, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Congresswoman Michelle Bachman officially declare their intentions to run for President.

On the Hill there was a fierce budget debate with clocks ticking down on cable news of a looming government shut down. Next up on the docket the debt ceiling vote. Get ready.

Now Democrat operatives are staging protests at Republican House Members town hall meetings across the Country using Congressman Paul Ryan’s forward looking budget as a wedge issue for 2012. A recent Rasmussen Poll shows those aware of the plan 51% of Republicans favor Ryan’s budget plan and 52% of Democrats oppose it. But a plurality of voters not affiliated with either party have no opinion. Again a classic example of party line support with the battleground being the independent voter’s support.

Without a doubt there are substantial issues that must be addressed in order for our Country to prosper. Sustaining isn’t good enough, growth should be our objective. Social Security, Medicare, cutting the deficit, sound job creation and pension reform are of all hallmark concerns.

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few. Oh, and while it is not significant to the “shaping of Long Island” I do predict very localized, heated debate on the zoning of Sonic fast food joints springing up on the Island. We’ll have to see if resident’s craving for burgers and roller skates will outweigh the traffic jams that may snarl local roads.

When you look at voter participation of national elections to local elections here on the Island the numbers are quite far apart. Let’s turn to Suffolk County as an illustration. The 2008 Presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain had 75.18% of registered voters come to the polls. That’s substantially higher than the 61% national average from that year. The last off year election in Suffolk County was in 2009 where a mere 20.81% turned out county wide. Go back to 2003 with the race for Suffolk County Executive between Ed Romaine and Steve Levy to see a somewhat respectable 32.38% turnout.

Political strategists have spent campaign dollars trying to drive out presidential year voters in off years with limited success.

There are many root causes of voter apathy at the local level. One reason is that there is substantially less television coverage of local races with Long Island’s news market dominated by New York City based and national cable news. Secondly there is not enough public awareness demonstrating the importance of local elected offices. An extreme few can actually describe the job function of a County Comptroller, but yet they’re asked to vote for that office in an election. Don’t dare to ask your average registered voter to name both their Assemblyman AND County Legislator. Yikes. (No offense to all my friends in those offices).

Some thought needs to go into New York’s stiffer voting rules compared to other states. Many states in the Union have more convenient absentee voting rules and gives the electorate the ability before election day to cast their ballots through early voting. Giving people more flexibility to vote with today’s more demanding work and home environments should be studied further outlining its pro’s and con’s for such a reform.

What out of the box ideas can “electrify” the electorate to fill in a circle on their paper ballots for County Executive, Town Supervisor and local Legislator this year?

All the snazzy mail put out by these candidates won’t do the trick. Long Island’s media; Newsday, News12, TV55, the Long Island Press, the Patch and weeklies do an admirable job touting local elections, but we need a wider net to cast in more voter interest.

One idea in the true spirit of bi-partisanship is to have all the Presidential, U.S Senate and House candidates who are running in 2012 join together, along with the main stream media to promote a “vote local” initiative this fall urging everyone to vote in their local elections. At least then we’d have a new, high profile delivery method to bring more voters to the polls this year. Well call that idea very unlikely.

We then need to consider a wide-spread “calling of the guard” for Long Island based stake holders and media to join together to create our own non partisan “vote local in 2011” initiative. We have many groups with substantial monetary and human capital where through the use of PSA type outreach can connect with every Long Islander multiple times with an important, yet simple, education campaign on why it is important to vote in your local elections. If groups like the Long Island Association, HIA, Execuleaders, Melville Chamber, Hispanic Chamber, ABLI, Long Island Angels, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, our higher educational institutions such as Hofstra and Dowling along with our many trade unions pooled resources for a “vote Long Island” campaign, the message would certainly drive voter participation higher in local election years, including 2011.

Unfortunately the Sonic debates, the chants to keep the Islanders here and the potential for winning the slots at a local casino won’t be enough to drive out presidential year voters en masse this November. But hopefully Long Island pulling together can far eclipse recent off year voter turnout by educating the public on why 2011 is just as important as 2012.

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.

Long Island Association

The Wrong Island Association

The Long Island Association’s (LIA) resident economic guru, Pearl Kamer, announced recently (to great fanfare) that the recession on Long Island is officially over! What a relief, right?

Boy, did that recession suck.

And it couldn’t end quickly enough, but now that it has, we should busy ourselves at once by throwing a tickertape parade down Route 110.

Of course, if by “over” she means continuing job losses, brain drain, high taxes, mandated MTA bailouts, imploding local and state government budgets, zero growth and development, empty malls, a declining manufacturing base, mounting foreclosures, increasing energy costs and a retail implosion, then I’m all in. Perhaps her exuberance sets the stage for the departure of LIA head Matt Crosson. After all, we wouldn’t want him to leave on a down note. Matt’s from Connecticut and you know how sensitive they can be.

Kamer’s assessment keeps in line with the out-of-touch, do-nothing-and-complain philosophy of the LIA, the largest business organization in the region, which counts some of LI’s key executives as members. The group is supposed to advocate for LI locally and upstate, but the LIA hasn’t inspired one piece of legislation or brought together key interests for the purpose of promoting growth on this island in years. “No Records” is emblazoned in red under the heading of Legislative Action on its own website. Even the letter under the “Innovate Long Island” heading was written in 2006. Because, you know, the world hasn’t changed at all since then.

Instead, the LIA’s largest initiative of the past two years was to fly local business leaders to China. One can only assume that it was to visit the people to whom these captains of industry doled out our jobs.

The LIA’s general inertia and habit of paying outrageous sums to bring former U.S. presidents, retired generals and cable television pundits to speak to throngs of businesspeople too busy thumbing the trackballs on their BlackBerries to care about what is transpiring on the large screens at the Crest Hollow are hardly motivating factors that lend credence to their in-house economist.

The public doesn’t need delusional prognostications blown over it like pixie dust; it needs to be stirred at its core. The few who legislate us into oblivion need to hear us speak loudly and clearly that the taxpayers will no longer subsidize incompetence. While it’s an easy target, the LIA is merely a surface indicator of the largely inefficient mosaic of public authorities that conspire to restrain our economy and prohibit growth and free enterprise. Even if Kamer is correct and the recession is over, or close to it, this is hardly the time to rest on our laurels and breathe a sigh of relief.

The LIA calls itself the “voice of Long Island.” Its stated mission is “to make Long Island an even better place to live, work, raise a family, and do business.” A truly representative organization of businesses and families would be railing against incumbents in Albany. It would organize against the county unions and let them know that raises are not a guaranteed right. It would tell the MTA to keep its damn hands off our money. It would excoriate political leaders for stacking public authorities with patronage jobs. But it doesn’t, hasn’t and won’t.

We are used to the images of protests on the steps of city hall and streets jammed with angry demonstrators in metropolitan settings. Yet, in suburban life our cries are heard but once a year behind the muted curtains of the voting booth. Tom Suozzi prophetically stated that the only way to fix the tax problem on Long Island was through an uprising. Prophetic indeed, as he fell victim to the crushing wave of emotion that swelled in every taxpayer’s home in Nassau County. The residents of Nassau voted with their wallets and condemned the Democratic incumbents who rode a similar wave into office just a few short years ago and squandered the opportunity to make lasting changes in the way the county does business.

This kind of silent revolution cannot begin and end at the polls, however. Nor can we expect a membership organization such as the LIA to advocate for real change. We, as individuals, business owners and civic leaders must be the alchemists of change and transmute the elements of our discontent into the golden solidarity of reform.

In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau writes “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” The governing bodies that bleed New York and Long Island dry are not tyrannical but they are unendurable in their inefficiency. If we are to believe that civil disobedience is a uniquely human right in a free society, we must, therefore, resoundingly reject any further encroachments on our freedom and ability to prosper. Or as Thoreau suggests, “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”