Chris Nuzzi, the outgoing Southampton Town councilman who is trying to oust incumbent Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, came out on the attack at Monday’s League of Women Voters debate in East Hampton.
When Mr. Schneiderman took office 10 years ago, the county had a surplus of $100 million, said Mr. Nuzzi, who tried to paint his opponent as part of a fiscally reckless county government. Today, it is looking for creative ways to plug a $189 million deficit.
“The finances are in such bad shape that the comptroller named Suffolk one of the most fiscally stressed” counties in the state, said Mr. Nuzzi, who is running on the Republican and Conservative lines.
Mr. Schneiderman, who has Independence, Democratic, and Working Families backing, acknowledged that the county has gone through difficult times since the recession hit in 2008. First off, it lost $100 million in annual sales tax revenue, which it relies on to fund the lion’s share of its budget, he said. Then, it was saddled with mandated costs of $300 million.
That forced the county to take “drastic, draconian measures” to slash costs, including reducing its workforce by about 20 percent, Mr. Schneiderman responded.
But he took issue with Mr. Nuzzi’s figures, saying that for 2014, the county is seeking to plug about $8 million in shortfalls in its general fund and another $4 million in the police fund.
But Mr. Nuzzi persisted, saying the county has relied on one-time revenues such as plans to sell the Foley Nursing Home for an estimated $17 million and another proposal to sell and lease back the Lee Dennison County Center in Hauppauge for $70 million to help plug the gap.
Mr. Nuzzi pounded away on fiscal issues, even when the candidates responded to questions on topics such as water quality and farmland preservation.
Both tended to agree, for instance, that tougher standards need to be in place to reduce the amount of nitrogen that runs off into surface waters and leaches into the groundwater and that stricter restrictions need to be placed on pesticides and fertilizers. But Mr. Nuzzi said that the East End is lucky because it still has the community preservation fund to help buy land for preservation while the county’s drinking water protection program has run dry and funds used to buy farmland are also depleted.
“It’s true the county doesn’t have a lot of money” for farmland purchases Mr. Schneiderman countered, but that’s because it borrowed $300 million and acted proactively to save land as it came on the market.
When Mr. Schneiderman pointed to successes, such as the $20 million widening of County Road 39 in Southampton, Mr. Nuzzi countered that the county had been slow to respond to a problem that was choking off the local economy.
Mr. Nuzzi also complained that the East End pays too great a share to the county’s police fund, for which it gets little in return, an issue Mr. Schneiderman has long focused on. Mr. Schneiderman said he had been successful in getting the county to earmark $3.5 million a year of that money to East End departments, a doubling of the amount it used to provide and more in line with the region’s population.
The question voters should ask themselves is “are we better off than we were 10 years ago?” Mr. Nuzzi said. He suggested that Suffolk County government needed to reorganize its priorities if it wanted to get out of the fiscal mess.
Mr. Schneiderman said he was proud of his record and pointed to open space purchases, the County Road 39 widening project, much needed dredging of town waters, improvements at the eastern campus of Suffolk Community College, and Sunday bus service as major accomplishments.
He said he had been endorsed by Representative Tim Bishop, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, and Larry Cantwell, who is running unopposed for East Hampton Town supervisor.
Mr. Schneiderman took his own swipe at Mr. Nuzzi, pointing out that Southampton Town had experienced its own fiscal problems and been forced to raise taxes under his watch.
“It’s easy to throw stones,” he said of his opponent. “He’s been in office too.”