Eating Reform For Lunch
You can't tell from Charlie O'Shea's wide-eyed, innocent expression that he's one of the Nassau GOP machine officials who are mortgaging the futures of county residents through the next generation.
The chairman of the county's Board of Assessors (he's also a vice chairman of the Nassau County Republican Committee) is standing in his conference room, politely and firmly fending off an accusation from a reporter that his "advisory panel," the Nassau Assessment Improvement Commission, is nothing more than a dog-and-pony show designed to deflect attention from real solutions to the county's GOP-induced financial crisis.
"I would disagree with that. The commission was formed because I wanted it formed," O'Shea says as his panelists look on, waiting to start their Aug. 25 meeting. "I'm very proud of this panel. This is a critical issue. Not to do this would be an insult to the intelligence of the Nassau County taxpayer."
Assessing the Damage
Here's the situation that insults the intelligence of every county resident: Residential property in the county hasn't been reassessed since 1938, and the GOP machine, which cares only about its own survival, has fought hard to keep it that way. Thousands of homeowners pay lower-than-fair taxes while thousands of others pay higher-than-fair taxes. Ten years ago, only 1,000 residential appeals were filed. Now, one out of every 10 residential property owners 30,000 out of roughly 300,000 is filing such an appeal.
Time is running out on all fronts. The county faces action from state and federal courts, continued scoldings from Wall Street and mounting threats from business leaders. Not to mention financial disaster. To refund money to property owners who have won appeals in the past 10 years, the county has had to borrow millions of dollars. Nassau owes an estimated $818 million and counting just to pay off the money it has borrowed to pay those refunds. The county's total debt is a staggering $2.45 billion.
Even the winners of assessment appeals aren't really winners. Every property owner, rich and poor, will have to pay off that debt. Nothing's more vicious than this cycle: As the debt mounts, the county's credit rating drops, which raises the cost of borrowing money to pay off the debt. The county recently promised to pay $158 million by 2017 for $100 million it desperately needs now to pay operating expenses.
Questions abound. Will the GOP machine be able to ease its executive leader of North Merrick, County Executive Tom Gulotta (salary $109,394), out of the job and into a judgeship and find another silver-haired gladhander to take his place? Will the citizenry wake up in time to at least throw a wrench into the GOP machinery in the November county legislative elections? Will anyone ever stop the machine from rewarding its loyalists with taxpayer-funded jobs, contracts and appointments and being rewarded in turn by a steady stream of campaign contributions?
The one sure thing is that the Aug. 25 meeting of O'Shea's advisory panel was grimly funny. The only reason it was called was to elect a new chairman and to eat lunch. The previous chair, Gary Hudes ($1,250 contributed to the party so far this year by his firm, Gennaro Jewelers), had resigned after the machine appointed him to the Hempstead Town Board (salary $47,500). In this fiscal crisis, O'Shea's new advisory panel is scheduled to meet only monthly and won't issue a report for at least another year.
And it's starting from scratch. No one from the Long Island Association, the powerful business lobby that is pressing for reassessment, or the Nassau Citizens' Budget Committee, the volunteer group that has been hounding the county for reform for 25 years, is on the panel.
Why? "I wanted people who didn't have a take on this issue one way or the other," says O'Shea.
Why They Meat
O'Shea's party loyalists and three retired judges a total of 10 people exchanged hugs and kisses as they filed into the conference room. But now some of them are impatient for O'Shea's conversation with a reporter to end. Besides, a mound of sandwiches awaits them.
Among those at the table is Briding Newell, the county's commissioner of minority affairs ($93,943 salary for running an office of three full-time employees including herself). Newell, like O'Shea, is a vice chair of the Nassau County Republican Committee. And there's lawyer Mike Mirotznik, a regular financial contributor to the party (along with his dad, Bernard).
There's also Carolyn Shah-Moehringer, head of an engineering firm that, as Newsday's Paul Vitello has pointed out, has done some county business. (Shah Associates sent a $500 check to the machine last Feb. 22.) There's C.W. Post art-education professor Donna Tuman, whose husband, Eric, is deputy commissioner of general services ($70,555 salary) for the machine-run Town of Oyster Bay. (Eric sent the Oyster Bay Republican Committee $125 last April 15.) There's Mickie Kayne, prominent member of the Elmont South Republican Club (most recent campaign contribution to the machine: $150 on June 28).
And of course there's John Kiernan, one of the machine's 70 "executive leaders" (his turf is the Willistons). The North Hempstead town supervisor until voters threw him out a few years ago, Kiernan is now county parks commissioner. (Although Kiernan's salary is $113,406 more than Gulotta's his most recent campaign contribution to the machine, on June 1, was only $150.) Kiernan chaired the county's Charter Review Commission earlier in the decade, a panel dominated 10-5 by the GOP even though the party held only 3-2 registration edge versus the Democrats. That panel drew up the boundaries that created the current 14-5 veto-proof GOP dominance in the county legislature. Kiernan often is called in to put out political fires: The machine sent him to Albany in June to strategize with its lobbyists and lawmakers about how to extricate Nassau County from its fiscal mess without ruining the GOP's image. Part of the solution was the controversial 1 percent "transfer tax" imposed on home sales.
This collection of party loyalists is the panel?
"I certainly didn't ask for party affiliation," says O'Shea.
Charlie, don't you already know that reassessment, which most taxpayers throughout the country simply take for granted, is tragically overdue in Nassau? Isn't it the logical thing to do?
"I don't know that to be true or false," O'Shea says, picking his words carefully. "No one has told me not to reassess."
As the panelists stir in their seats, eyeing the sandwiches awaiting them, O'Shea makes one last point: "Any elected official could have formed this committee. But I did it."
Taking his seat at the conference table, O'Shea says to his panel, "We're here to pick a new chairman."
"I nominate John uh, John, uh...," says retired Supreme Court Judge Alfred Robbins. "I can't remember your name."
"John Kiernan," a panel member chirped.
Kiernan is elected without discussion or dissent. It's noted that Phoebe Goodman of the Nassau Citizens Budget Committee is one of the scheduled speakers at the Sept. 1 regular meeting. "Doesn't she have a report or something? Can we get a copy of it?" someone pipes up. O'Shea and deputy assessor Joan Morley vigorously agree to pursue that request.
A motion to adjourn is made. The aging Judge Robbins, in a jovial mood, has one last thing to say: "If I vote yes, does that mean I still get a sandwich?"
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