New York State
Laura Curran on trying to earn Nassau County’s trust
It takes a lot to sway skeptical suburbanites – especially after Mangano’s fall from grace.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran is nearly halfway through her first term in office as the first woman to hold the position. She took over a dysfunctional county in 2018, with a budget that has required state oversight almost continuously since the 1990s and distrust of local government after former County Executive Ed Mangano resigned amid charges of corruption that led to his conviction on bribery charges.
Curran spoke with City & State about her tenure so far, developments like the Belmont Park Arena and the Nassau Hub that she hopes will revitalize the county, and whether the county will ever be OK with legalizing recreational marijuana. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the big issues right now for Nassau County?
A long time ago, I signed on to a letter supporting the Northeast Supply Enhancement Pipeline. I just did a new one supporting it. We’ve got this amazing Belmont Arena going up in Nassau County, which I’m very bullish on, and we need to power it. A lot of our businesses can’t get gas hookups right now because of (National Grid’s gas) moratorium. It’s really bad for our economy. They’re saying in Belmont they’ll do huge propane gas tanks in the ground, which I don’t think will make the community around them very comfortable.
There has been a lot of community pushback against the Belmont Park Arena project, which is pretty far along. Are these concerns legitimate?
Obviously, when you build something like this, there will be some impact. I believe that the Long Island Rail Road station that will be built at Elmont will alleviate a lot of the traffic concerns. For the draft environmental impact statement, the county responded with a lot of questions and asked them for details about certain traffic mitigation issues, and they've made adjustments because of that. You really have to engage the community. And I'm very hopeful that this will be built and that the surrounding community will see the benefit. We're growing the tax base, we're creating jobs. We're making Nassau County a much more dynamic place to live in, to work in, to play.
The Nassau Hub is a major development that’s being planned again after stalling many times in the past. What makes this time around different?
The town and the county are aligned on this. So about 10 years ago, it all fell apart because the town and the county weren't aligned. There is political bickering, partisan bickering that made the whole thing fall apart. So now we are aligned, the zoning is in place, it's zoned for 500 units of housing. The other piece that's different is we had unanimous bipartisan support from the county Legislature for a development plan. Another aspect is, we know that you can't have a successful development unless you have the community involved and bought in. So we have a very large community benefits advisory board made up of stakeholders from all the surrounding community. This has long been a symbol of stagnation. It has just been plan after plan that's not been acted upon, shot down. And I think we're finally lined up in a place where we can get it done to show that Nassau County is no longer the land of “no.”
Long Islanders have generally been resistant to new developments they think will affect the suburban experience. How do you plan to combat that mindset to bring growth to Nassau?
I'm one of those people who left New York City to live in the suburbs, because I wanted the suburban quality of life. But if you don't grow the tax base, and you don't keep young people, and older people have to move because they can't afford the taxes, we won't have this wonderful suburban quality of life. We need to – where it makes sense – build up our downtowns, make them dynamic, make them economic engines to attract and keep young people, which then attract and keep good jobs. And when we do that, that helps us afford the ball field, the lovely home where you can park in your driveway. I think Farmingdale is the perfect example. Its mayor was very courageous and very bold and allowed the zoning for housing right by the train station. Main Street was half-empty, it was a bit of a ghost town. It’s now completely revitalized, with places to go eat or drink and to go shopping.
After taking over from an administration plagued by corruption, what have you done to curb corruption in the future?
I think I’m doing well on that front. We really have had a breach of trust when it comes to politicians in Nassau County. So, the first couple of months in office, I signed two executive orders. The first was that I would not allow anyone who works for my government, who I appoint, to raise money, or donate to my campaigns, or to hold leadership positions in political parties. I wanted to make it very clear, to make it very black and white, that the people that I appoint are there to do the work, not to help me climb the greasy pole of politics. The second executive order said that anyone who works for county government in the procurement process cannot accept a gift of any amount – not even a cup of coffee – from someone seeking to do business with the county.
Nearly halfway through your first term, how are you addressing Nassau’s fiscal problems? They appear to be improving, with decreases in the deficit.
We’re making progress. We're making sure that we spend every penny wisely in a $3 billion budget. And we are making sure that we're leaner and meaner and more efficient. And it's that old cliche, doing more with less. We're providing services, we're paving more roads. I think we're on track to pay more than 130% more than we did two years ago. So we're working hard. But we're doing it in a more efficient way. And my goal is to get out of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority control period.
Do you think that will happen during your first term?
It could, and that would be a very good goal.
You came out against legalizing recreational marijuana during the state legislative session. How do you feel about the decriminalization law that was signed?
Decriminalizing makes sense to me. I knew that we weren't ready for legalization in Nassau County. I had convened a task force because I was kind of agnostic on the issue. I just wanted to know if we were ready for it, if we could handle it. And the report that they gave me showed that we were not ready.
Do you foresee a point in time when the county is ready?
I guess I’ll just have to see how it goes, see what the state decides and then see where we are at that point.
Long Island as a whole has an unusual structure in the levels of local governance, with villages and towns and cities and counties. Have you come across instances where this has led to confusion during your time in government?
Yeah, explaining to other people. First of all, the question is, “Why are my taxes so high?” And then you explain to people, well, two-thirds to three-quarters of your property tax bill goes to your local school district. And we have 56 independent school districts, we have 71 fire departments, we have 54 libraries, 64 villages, three towns – that are kind of like counties – and two cities. And people can live in a certain school district, their library district be something else and their hamlet be something else completely different. And people don't know, they don't care. You always hear about roads and potholes, that's the No. 1 issue for many people, for good reason. They don't know if it's a town road, village road, county road or state road. And frankly, they don't care. They just want their road to be fixed. Something that we did was we started a new website where you can go on and see who the road belongs to so you know who you have to hold accountable for it.
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