A Change Is Gonna Come

When Phoebe Goodman is told that Charlie O'Shea's Nassau Assessment Improvement Commission wants to see her report, she rolls her eyes and says, "I gave it to them!" Like all the other sober, detailed reports and analyses the Nassau Citizens Budget Committee has given to county officials in the past 25 years, this one wound up in the I Don't Care File.

Goodman is surprisingly calm for someone who regularly jousts with the machine and its knuckleheads. Her protective coating during several decades as basically a full-time civic volunteer seems to be a droll sense of humor.

"Gulotta and his people are treating reassessment as if it's leprosy and everyone's going to catch it," she says.

Her own activism concerning county government started 25 years ago, she says, when she took her first look at Nassau budget documents and discovered that they literally made no sense. (They still don't. Nassau doesn't even publish a plan for capital spending, and many of the figures in Gulotta's annual budget summary are simply plucked out of the air.)

Considering the lock the GOP machine has on things, the situation seems hopeless— unless the machine decides behind closed doors to change its mind and support reassessment. Proponents of reassessment say they understand that O'Shea's panel is to be the vehicle through which the machine will announce support of some sort of property-tax reform. Goodman herself says, "The committee is going to pass something— that's what we've heard." One indication that the machine will channel its voice through the committee is the presence of its key strategist John Kiernan.

And despite the threatening clouds, this is in some ways the golden age of the Nassau machine. It controls county government and the towns of Hempstead and Oyster Bay. Politics in Nassau has never been more anti-Democratic and anti-democratic. The machine's control of the county's property-taxing apparatus is airtight: Of the five members of the Board of Assessors, Charlie Artale ($50,432 salary) is executive leader of Plainview East and Mike Pulitzer ($55,000 salary) is executive leader of Great Neck. (Each has given more than $1,000 to Republican Party coffers so far this year.) O'Shea ($100,000 salary; $1,500 sent to the party so far this year) is a party vice-chair, but member Rich Bianculli ($55,000 salary) has the clearest conflict: He also gets a $26,917.80 annual salary from the party to work as a flunky at the machine's mini-Kremlin on Post Avenue in Westbury.

In the county's convoluted setup, there's also a part-time Assessment Review Board, which is supposed to handle appeals. Last fall the state granted the county the power to expand the board from five to nine members, so it could handle the burgeoning load of tax appeals. But the board still consists of only five members. One of its five is Hempstead Town Board member Curtis Fisher, known primarily as machine boss Joe Mondello's tennis partner. He's paid $47,500 by Hempstead and $39,632 for his part-time Assessment Review Board work. Another member is Barry J. Gross ($43,759 salary; $250 contributed to the party so far this year). Gross also is a lawyer; his partner is county Comptroller Fred Parola, the GOP's executive leader of Wantagh.

Parola ($108,670 salary) and O'Shea both try to style themselves as critics of Gulotta. But they won't blast him too harshly in public, because Gulotta is the machine's executive leader of North Merrick, and the machine likes to keep its internal disputes out of the public eye. And there's little chance the comptroller will criticize the assessor, or vice versa: Parola and O'Shea made sure their families were scheduled to share the same condo at this summer's Nassau GOP golf holiday in the Poconos.

By the way, if you're looking to the county legislature for a watchdog, don't. The presiding officer, Bruce Blakeman, is also a vice chair of the party.

Until voters decide to bust the kneecaps of the machine, the mini-Kremlin on Post Avenue is where the real decisions on such issues as reassessment will continue to be made. But the pressure for reform is intensifying. A court challenge points out the obvious fact that black and poor people are discriminated against by the current inequity. But even some people and public officials in lily-white areas where houses are under-assessed, like Garden City and Manhasset, are supporting change. Many middle-class Republicans haven't even awakened to the fact that they themselves are getting screwed: Among the areas burdened by unfair assessments are Republican strongholds like Island Park, home of Alfonse D'Amato.

Reformers such as Phoebe Goodman don't hammer the machine, as the Democratic party tries to do. Goodman tries to keep the issue nonpartisan; she refuses to reveal her own political affiliation. Her committee's newsletter and publications have a distinctly impersonal and bipartisan flavor. Judging by the ritzy gated community Goodman lives in, she's certainly not a Communist— these reformers aren't wild-eyed radicals. But though she's 73 and talks of turning over the reins to someone else, she's neither shy nor retiring.

"I've got a tiger by the tail now," says Goodman. "I have become a kind of fulcrum around which the opposition focuses. To stop now would be dumb."

 
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