There are many benefits to getting older, although I often wish that I were a lot younger. When it comes to Long Island politics, I have pretty good recall going back to the mid-1950s. As a fledging reporter for a weekly newspaper, I met County Executive A. Holly Patterson, and in later years had some battles with his successors Ralph Caso and Fran Purcell. I served in the Assembly with the late Tom Gulotta, another former county executive, and of course know U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, who also occupied the executive’s office.
While all of those characters had different personalities, by and large they were good county executives who performed their jobs responsibly. They made sure the streets were plowed after snowstorms and the potholes on county highways were filled. They all had their challenges, and like all human beings, they made their share of mistakes.
All of this leads me to some observations about current County Executive Laura Curran.
Nassau County, like all suburban counties, isn’t an easy place to govern. It has a major police force, a large workforce and facilities all over the place. There are county parks and numerous recreation facilities. We are blessed with beautiful beaches and waterfront facilities, which require maintenance and supervision. But if I had to pick the toughest part of Curran’s job, it is managing the county’s finances, and that includes tax collections.
On the few occasions that I dealt with the county’s tax assessment system, I usually met with some department employee who worked with old yellow assessment cards that looked like they’d been used since the Civil War. The agency has never been easy to run, and its assessment of homes has been a source of anxiety for Curran, as it was for her predecessors. There is no way to make any aggrieved homeowner happy, and Curran has done the best she could to keep the system from imploding.
Long before she came to the job, the county was in deep financial trouble. For years and years, it ran up major deficits, and for political reasons kept deferring any increase in real estate taxes. Executive after executive tried to paper over the growing deficits, but eventually the chickens came home to roost.
In 2000, the county was near bankruptcy. In order to save it from itself, the State Legislature created the Nassau Interim Finance Authority to monitor Nassau’s finances and serve as the equivalent of a control board. NIFA is similar to boards that have been created for New York City, Yonkers and Buffalo. It keeps a close eye on the county’s operations, and a mere threat from NIFA can give the county executive and the Legislature a major migraine. NIFA isn’t a paper tiger. It has the ability to force dramatic changes in the county budget and operations.
The past two years have been especially tough for Nassau and Suffolk counties. Sales tax collections have been declining at the same time that mandated expenses have been ballooning. Expenses have increased dramatically during the pandemic, which no one could have anticipated. The county’s share of Medicaid expenses is dictated by the federal and state governments, and there’s no source of funds to counterbalance them. Just keeping the county afloat is enough to keep Curran busy.
The other criteria I use in judging any public official’s performance is their public personality. Curran is bright, outgoing and genuinely pleasant. She is out in the community frequently, and when she faces the press, she is confident and factual. If she doesn’t know the answers, she promises to get them, and keeps her word. I’ve seen her speak outside Long Island, and she gets high marks from total strangers who think she comes across as very professional.
I’m aware of one other facet of Curran’s performance in office. She speaks her mind, and on occasion has tangled with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over county issues. It’s hard to govern a county of over one million people and not have differences with the people in Albany or Washington.
I have no dealings with the Nassau County government, so I’m not seeking any special favors. After four years of President Donald Trump and a lot of Washington ineptitude, it’s nice to focus on local competence for a change, and Curran is a good example of that.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.