County Legislator Dave Denenberg won his seventh term to office in the 19th Legislative District on November 2, 61% to 39% against Republican challenger Steve Rhoads, according to the Nassau County Board of Elections. This was Rhoads second challenge against Denenberg. Your NewsMag.com sat down with Denenberg at his Bellmore office after the election to see where perhaps, for him, the challenges of the next four years lie.
Q: Democratic challenger and former County Executive Tom Suozzi, in his terms in office, saved the county from bankruptcy by raising property taxes 19.4% in his first year with the support of the first-year Republican-lead NIFA board; he subsequently did not raise property taxes for 6 years while also holding the budget down to $2.6 billion during that time; he enjoyed 15 major bond rating upgrades; was hailed by regional and national publications for his fiscal efforts to reduce spending; cut the county employee roles substantially; took the reins during the first yearly assessments; and used operating expenses to pay down past debt, to incur less borrowing. How did the Democratic message derail so badly during this election with a positive record such as Suozzi’s?
A: He was the wrong messenger, in that he did not get out the message that County Executive Mangano had raised property taxes through worsening the assessment system, had raised fees substantially, that consolidation of police precincts was a failure because it now costs the county more in overtime for fewer police to patrol. Look, when people want change from the incumbent they want reasons for that change, and Suozzi didn’t give them reasons for changing. And, any message he had was more convoluted than the voters could understand. In 2009, the year he was beaten by 286 votes, he raised taxes on energy products to try to balance the budget because county tax revenues had taken a plunge from almost $1 billion to $850 million because of the great recession. Those taxes would have balanced that budget. Mangano hasn’t had a balanced budget since taking office and now NIFA is in control of county finances.
Q: Does personality matter? County Executive Ed Mangano wears kakhis and windbreakers like your neighbor next door, Suozzi looks like a straight-up businessman in his business suits. You and Laura Curran won handily for your party in your districts. But Mangano won your district for his party. Was it more about personalities?
A: Yes, personality matters. But Laura Curran in Baldwin had pockets of Democrats I don’t have in this district. I don’t think voters had a liking for Suozzi anymore. Votewise, he ran behind the rest of the legislators in their districts. That is, in districts where Democratic legislators won Suozzi ran well behind them. And, again, he didn’t convey himself as an agent of change against increasing borrowing and deficits.
Q: The Republican majority wanted to borrow $700 million to repair the county sewage system, broken in large measure by the Bay Park fiasco, where water breached the pumps and blew them apart. But that borrowing needed a supermajority of votes. The Democratic caucus would not agree. You finally broke with your caucus and agreed to the borrowing in order to get the fixes for the sewers. What could the Democrats gain for their constituency by agreeing to the borrowing?
A: Ten sewer plant projects had been waiting county action since 2009, when there was $450 million available for several fixes. And $262 million was available in 2012 for fixes, such as back-up generators for Bay Park that would have kept the pumps working at that plant after the breach. Monies available and bonded would also have helped fix some Cedar Creek issues such as scrubbers, digesters and cleaners. But the majority in the Legislature wanted to borrow more. When I was chairman for a short time on the Public Works Committee I held quarterly hearings for oversight purposes and we got over $200 million in work done. Now there are no hearings on public works projects or any other matter. I wanted to get hearings going again.
Q: What has been the effect of putting off yearly assessments to four-year assessments?
A: Yearly assessments help to get the most accurate data on the value of a property. By freezing taxes like former County Executive Tom Gulotta did, it just breaks it more. Mangano’s approach to freezing taxes has been utter failure. What his administration did was to then permit anyone who requested a reduction to get one, that’s why he promoted grieving your taxes. It also helped attorneys increase their earnings substantially, by the way, because if you used an attorney they would get a large bit of what you won. Residential refunds under Suozzi had been reduced in the county to about only $3 million, because the yearly assessment provided for more accurate property data. My taxes have gone up at least 21% in the three years County Executive Mangano has been in office.
Q: Is it true that lower bond ratings mean higher costs for the county to borrow? Is that cost passed onto taxpayers?
A: Absolutely. With bond downgrades since County Executive Mangano took office the county is paying more to borrow, and it costs more in interest for investors to take the risk of investing in the county.
Q: The national press in Washington is acting like the sky has fallen over the Affordable Care Act, apparently not following through with meaningful questions to those proposing that ACA is killing the country, questions that could put a quick end to all the drama over this law that provides several new consumer protections against free markets. Has the daily national press been kind to your caucus over the last four years as the minority, and have they been kind to you? I do see you quoted more often in Newsday. Could they follow through more specifically on your caucus’s plans, for example?
A: For the most part, because I take an independent stand on things and am not bashful to express it, the daily press had quoted me more recently, yes. As for the Democratic caucus, they could follow through more on such things as the importance of bond downgrades and how they are affecting the residents of the county. They could also listen more to the caucus’s complaints about County Executive Mangano’s no-bid contracts for work on Sandy. They have also missed on how the county executive has in fact increased fees and property taxes.
Q: What is the role of the minority? Norma [Nassau County Presiding Officer] answered that same question when she was in the minority by saying it was the role of oversight. Do you agree?
A: All legislators act to provide oversight in their seats as legislators, to watch how taxpayer money is handled and spent. As a majority leader I would also do oversight on the executive level while leading at the legislative level. But we – that is, the residents and the press – now need to look at how a law is made and who’s making it. There are unfair trade practices taking place with regard to insurance companies and banks and their actions against Sandy victims that the majority is unwilling to take up on the floor – simply because it’s coming from a Democrat. The Democrats, when they were the majority, always gave the minority party freedom to provide avenues to present legislation. I have had six laws passed that, by changing one word, became their laws and they passed, such as the Fracking law. As long as some laws are getting passed from Democratic initiatives while becoming Republican laws, I guess I can’t complain too much.
Q: While Republicans brand Democrats as the tax-and-spend party, and the Democrats brand the majority party as borrow-and-spend party, are there similar goals you both want that you can achieve by sitting down in a bi-partisan manner for the sake of the people who have elected you to lead? Better business plans to bring in corporations to the Hub to help with the tax rolls that would reduce everyone’s taxes? Who implements that growth to get those businesses in here? What are those goals, and what items can you still negotiate on? You all used to do so well with public works projects for your districts.
A: Yes. During (Islander owner) Charles Wong’s attempt to build the Lighthouse project that involved two million square feet, the Legislature voted 19-0 in favor of building it. But even though the town complained of a 60-story building and Wong reduced it to two 20-story buildings, the town still didn’t want it. When Bruce Ratner’s plan for 145,000 square feet was proposed, the Legislature again voted 19-0 in favor. So there are still things we can agree on as a governing body together and co-operate on, such as building a better tax base for both commerce and residents. But the majority has adopted a darker outlook now regarding, as I noted before, which legislators can introduce laws. Democrats by and large allowed movement for the Republicans to initiate and sponsor laws. Now, when I initiate one a Republican has to take credit for it. If you look at the trend nationwide, there were suggestions that a lot of negative campaigning was going on. There was a lot of negative campaigning against me. Norma campaigned with negative campaigning. Why did she have to do that? But more importantly, if you win with negative campaigning, it appears to show you will less likely be bi-partisan but, in fact, partisan.