Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said on Tuesday that her fledgling administration is projecting a budget gap, and she has asked department heads to prepare for potential spending cuts of 2 to 6 percent.
Addressing officials from the 64 villages in the county, she also said that the county’s property tax assessment system is “in shambles” and vowed to overhaul it by the end of the year.
Curran, a Democrat who was elected in November, did not specify the size of the budget gap.
“I believe there must be an effort to tighten the belt and undergo our own equivalent of surgical gastric bypass,” Curran said at the meeting of the Nassau County Village Officials Association at Westbury Manor.
Last year the county paid $90 million in tax settlements due to the flawed property tax assessment system, Curran said.
The county must also pay $45 million to two men whose convictions in a rape and murder were overturned, she said. Of that amount, at least $22 million would come from the county’s reserves and the rest would be borrowed, if the county’s fiscal watchdog, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, approves.
Newsday has previously reported that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the county’s appeal of the 2014 award to John Restivo and Dennis Halstead after their convictions in the rape and murder of Theresa Fusco, a teenager from Lynbrook, were overturned.
Restivo and Halstead spent 18 years in prison.
Additionally, issues such as a sewer tax snafu that was uncovered a couple of weeks ago are feeding into the already tight budget, Curran said.
To address the fiscal challenges, Curran said, she has directed department heads to decide on potential 6, 4 and 2 percent cuts in their budgets.
These new cuts may not all be used, but the departments will have an outline ready for cuts to be made when necessary, Curran said.
Curran also said her team has a laser focus on the property tax assessment system.
The prior administration had not significantly updated the tax roll since 2009, Curran said.
The outdated assessment roll forced the county to pay $90 million in tax grievances in 2017, Curran said.
“The settlements are not across the board. Some firms receive larger settlements for their clients than others,” Curran said. “And if you’re a taxpayer who doesn’t grieve then you’re shouldering the tax burden that is shifted from those who do grieve, and repeat grievers pay less than their fair share and keep sinking further and further from fair market value.”
Curran said she plans to “turbocharge” the systematic review of the property tax assessment system and update the tax roll with current fair market values by 2019.
Two local companies that have been doing this work will continue to do so, she said: Matt Smith for residential matters and Michal Haberman for commercial.
Curran said the Office of Real Property Tax Services Overview will review Smith’s and Haberman’s work and assist with reaching the 2019 goal.
Curran also addressed an issue that Robert Kennedy, mayor of the Village of Freeport and president of the association, has been advocating for – sales tax disbursement to villages.
State law says the county shall pay a portion to the towns and cities and it may pay a portion to the villages, Curran said.
The county Legislature last summer took that distinction away and passed a law saying the county must disburse money to the villages at least until 2020.
“I will be frank and honest with you … if it were in my discretion I would not be paying this out,” Curran said. “It is not at my discretion now and I will follow the law, but this is an example of how we need to tighten our belt and a place where we could have potentially tightened our belt.”
In the 2018 budget $1.25 million is to be disbursed among the 64 villages, Curran said.
“I know it’s only $1.25 million but a million here and a million there really adds up,” Curran added.
Curran also addressed questions from several village officials after speaking.
Jean Celender, mayor of the Village of Great Neck Plaza, said that county roads need to be taken care of, adding that past county administrations have cut staff from the Department of Public Works.
Peter Forman, a trustee from the Village of Sands Point, asked whether departments can make changes to save money without reducing services.
Curran said that the departments are free to make their potential 6, 4 and 2 percent cuts however they choose, and the intent is not to take away services or staff.
Pamela Marksheid, a trustee from the Village of Great Neck Plaza, asked Curran about bringing back the Police Department’s 6th Precinct – a promise she and her opponent Jack Martins made during the campaign.
Curran said she is in discussions and reviewing the matter with acting Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, and said she will keep the association posted.