Four days after Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano declared in his first State of the County address that "listening to the concerns of residents is a hallmark of democracy," he invited a group of Port Washington civic and business leaders to air concerns and share their vision for the county's future.
After opening the forum, held at the Port Washington Public Library, with a recap of the major themes of his State of the County address, including the urgent need for tax assessment reform, job creation and streamlined, cheaper government, the county executive turned the floor over to the more than 40 attendees.
"This is really about listening to you," Mangano said.
Pocketbook issues such as job creation, tax assessment reform and revitalizing the local business infrastructure dominated the nearly two-hour session.
"I've never protested my taxes," said long-time homeowner and Superintendent of the Port Washington Water Pollution Control District Robert J. Breslin.
But Breslin said he sees the current assessment system as broken. "I always look to see where I stand in relation to my neighbors and it seems like every year when I do it, I laugh," he said with the shake of a head. "Last year, I thought I was doing OK. This year, I think it's unfair. My house is $40,000 more valuable than it was last year, but my neighbor's is $10,000 less."
The county executive said that Breslin's remarks illustrated the "dysfunction" in the system and asserted that he intends to enact a "reliable review system that will put in place consistency."
"The same exact houses in the same exact school system should be assessed consistently," Mangano said. "But in our current system, don't bet a dime that that's going to happen."
Mangano also faulted the current tax assessment system for the dire financial straits of the county. "Fiscal issues continue to loom large in our county," Mangano said. "We spend more money than we take in, and the main reason is the property tax assessment system that we're burdened with. It's wasteful. Two-hundred-fifty million dollars a year; that's what it costs you annually."
Mangano was accompanied by new Deputy County Executive for Economic Development Pat Foye, a Sands Point resident, who is overseeing the county executive's assessment reform efforts and who was recently tapped to spearhead economic development for the county.
Taxes were also on the mind of local businesswoman Andrea Majer, owner of Delux Transportation. Majer cited high taxes, governmental red tape and an absence of consistent community support for the increase in empty storefronts along Main Street.
"I don't want to move my business out of the Town of North Hempstead but it's really hard to stay here," Majer said. "The taxes, the parking is a problem. Every organization, every school in town wants a donation but if they have to park two blocks away from your business to walk to your store, they'll get in the car and drive to Roosevelt Field to park and walk a mile."
Noting that "small business owners support the Little League teams" and that "they're the first ones to write a check," Mangano laid out a three-pronged strategy he envisions shoring up small business.
"What we can do in the county is number one, help create jobs so people have money in their pockets to spend; number two, I think with parking, we may be able to help, we should meet with your Chamber of Commerce because we do have grants and initiatives to help improve parking, make it more convenient; and number three, obviously improving the housing opportunities in the downtown areas."
Education and environmental issues were also raised by numerous attendees. Top of mind was how to keep education strong and sustain quality of life projects such as parks and recreation when dollars are short. School board president Karen Sloan noted that the struggle to keep budgets in check is "really affecting education there's just no way around it."
Mangano returned to the consistent theme of tax assessment reform, stating that while tweaks can be made to help free up dollars to prime the education pump, tax assessment reform was needed to get money to flow more freely.
"We can help with shared purchasing, technology, phone lines," Mangano said. "We have looked at joint legal services, we can encourage savings. But probably the biggest way that Nassau County will help the school districts is to reform the real property tax assessment system."
Long-time green spaces and public parks advocate Myron Blumenfeld of the Port Washington Parks Conservancy, asked for the county executive's continuing support of the Stannards Brook Park reconstruction. While $1 million have already been secured through the New York State Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) and the Nassau County Environmental Bond Act funds for continuing maintenance are not yet secured.
Blumenfeld called on Mangano to support efforts to secure additional federal and state funds for parks in Port Washington. Blumenfeld said that the revitalization of Stannards Brook is set to begin in spring or early summer and then "you'll have a gem of new park on five acres on Carlton Avenue and you'll have a new park, one of four different parks in Port Washington that have used EPF funds."
A contingent of Sands Point Preserve board members and supporters including Sands Point Mayor Leonard Wurzel urged the county to play an active role in the new public-private partnership of the Sand Point Preserve.
The county executive was well-received by the crowd, with dozens of participants opening their remarks by thanking him for his time and attention.
"I think is excellent that he's on a listening tour," said Roy Smitheimer, executive director of the Greater Port Washington Business Improvement District.
Smitheimer added, "In terms of the politics of the peninsula, we're more Democratic than Republican but he's out here, with our hometown guy Pat Foye, getting our ideas, hopefully integrating them into policies that can help us."
Not everyone was as sanguine. Small business owner Linda Columbo of Frank's Pizza said the outlook for business is at the lowest ebb. "We are so screwed," she said. "It's going to get worse before it gets better. I had to lay someone off. I've been in business since 1984 and I've never had to do it before. I couldn't sleep, these people are family."
She added, "I've been in business for 25 years, I'm working seven days a week. I shouldn't have to work this hard."