In a late-night vote Saturday at the County Legislative building, the 19-member Legislature voted to approve the fiscal 2011 budget.
The 11-8 vote occurred around 10 p.m. Saturday and was strictly along party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor. The weekend session was required due to the county charter, which stipulates that a budget must be in place by Oct. 30.
The budget has drawn its share of controversy as the Legislature has incorporated assessment reforms proposed by County Executive Ed Mangano, R-Bethpage, which include ending the county guarantee for Nassau's 54 school districts. Mangano estimates the reform will save Nassau about $80 million per year, but the Democratic caucus as well as school districts see it as shifting the burden of tax refunds from the county to the local municipalities.
"What you're doing is devastating to Long Island and school districts," Uniondale School Superintendent William Lloyd said, describing how he had to let 21 teachers go recently due to budget cuts. Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt, R-Massapequa, said that the change would not affect school district until the 2013-14 school year, a point contended by Merrick Superintendent Ranier Melucci, president of the Nassau Superintendents' Association. Melucci stated that districts would have to begin setting up reserve funds to pay for their portion of the tax settlements. Ending the county guarantee also requires the approval of state legislators.
The budget does contain approximately $9.6 million for the still-struggling Long Island Bus system, far from the $26 million the agency says it needs to continue to operate. Legislator Wayne Wink, D-Roslyn, proposed using the funds from phase three of the county's red light camera program to pay for the Long Island Bus instead of the proposed privatization. The third phase of the red light camera program is projected to bring in $17.3 million in revenue, which when combined with the money already in the budget, adds up to the amount the MTA says is required to continue to operate the bus system.
"It makes perfect sense that drivers who violate the vehicle and traffic laws in this county should be subsidizing those who don't drive in this county and help to provide for mass transportation services throughout this county," Wink said. "We all know that wherever they've tried privatizing a normal municipal bus service it has failed," Legislator Judy Jacobs, D-Woodbury, said. "It failed miserably in the city when they tried it."
Another controversial feature included in the budget is the placing of a sewer "usage fee" on nonprofit organizations. The move would affect a number of organizations, including fire departments, schools and hospitals such as Nassau University Medical Center, Winthrop-University Hospital and North Shore LIJ, as well as colleges including Adelphi, Nassau Community and Hofstra University that have "never paid (for) their disposal of their sewage," Schmitt said.
According to the presiding officer, the fee would be one cent for every gallon of usage, which would be measured during the winter months so as not to take into account water used for irrigation, etc. that is not put into the sewer system. The county expects to raise $38 million to close an estimated $28 million deficit in the county sewer district line and stave off bankruptcy. Democrats have called the measure a "toilet tax" and asked to "flush" the measure.
"If only tax exempt organizations are paying a fee, it's a tax," Legislator Dave Denenberg, D-Merrick, said. "Residents don't pay a fee," he said, adding that every school district would pay a minimum of $140,000 for water usage. According to estimates, hospitals would incur approximately $6 million in fees per year.
Residents as well as school district representatives voiced their objections to the measures in a marathon session Friday at the Legislature, causing a vote on the budget to be postponed.
"Nassau and Suffolk Counties send $3 billion to the state of New York, and for us to be sitting here listening to residents having these kinds of problems because of the actions of the state is despicable and disgraceful on the part of the state," Schmitt said.
Nassau is currently facing a $343 million deficit and Mangano had proposed borrowing $364 million to pay for backlogged claims in the assessment system which are yet to be settled. The figure was reduced to $211 million. Legislative Minority Leader Diane Yatauro said in a statement that the county executive has agreed to $40 million for 2010 tax settlements, with an additional $10 million for 2011.