By Karl Grossman
Bigger is better.
That’s part of Long Island Association (LIA) President Law’s Kevin Law’s rationale for proposing last week a study into Nassau and Suffolk counties merging into a mega-county.
It would indeed be better for the developer-members of the LIA, an islandwide chamber of commerce. Government officials and others with clout in Nassau have long been development-focused. As a result, it’s become the greatest example of suburban sprawl in the U.S.
Only last week a task force — set up by developers — proposed a $346 million project to rebuild the Nassau Coliseum and construct a “sports-entertainment complex” on the surrounding 77 acres. Nassau voters in August rejected a similar $400 million plan. Nassau property taxes are among the highest in the U.S. to pay for the public services required for the intense development that has gone on.
In Suffolk, on the other hand, government officials and others with influence here have been concerned about over-development and committed to preservation that has given the county a national reputation for saving open space and farmland.
“Nassau and Suffolk are two different cultures with two different outlooks,” says Suffolk Legislator Edward Romaine of Center Moriches. “Nassau has a strong culture of development. Suffolk has charted a different future.”
There are also sharp governmental differences not unrelated to development. Machine politics has been big in Nassau. Suffolk is “far more democratic in its governance,” says Mr. Romaine, who knows Nassau politics from having attended Adelphi and being vice president of Nassau Young Republicans.
As to bigger being better, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor commented last week that “if this was so, the MTA would be a tremendous success. It is not. My sense of large institutions is that bigger is not necessarily better.” And he, too, emphasizes the difference between Nassau — “the prototypical suburban county” — and Suffolk with its strong agricultural and tourism base, notably on its East End.
Also, said Mr. Thiele, if there ever was a consolidation of Nassau with its 1.5 million residents and Suffolk with its 1.5 million, Suffolk’s East End towns with their 150,000 people would end up “subsumed, basically pushed aside.”
“It’s an absurd proposal,” says Suffolk Legislator Jon Cooper of Lloyd Harbor, in the northwest portion of Suffolk. Mr. Law’s claim that a consolidation of the counties could lead to cost savings is “insulting” as well as “nonsense,” said Mr. Cooper. He cited how Suffolk has “held the line on spending, moved to eliminate waste” and other budget-cutting for years.
And, unlike Nassau, Suffolk is “not a hotbed of partisanship. We have been able to work together in a bipartisan fashion for the people,” said Mr. Cooper, the legislature’s Democratic leader, raised in Syosset who heads a family business in Nassau. The key reason for fiscal problems for county governments in New York State, he said, is the state’s mandates of programs for counties to run — that they don’t fund. “Kevin [Law] knows this.”
Moreover, says Suffolk Comptroller Joseph Sawicki — who also dislikes Mr. Law’s scheme — Long Island is being seriously under-compensated by the state for the taxes and other monies it provides the state. “We contribute $12.5 billion a year and get back $9 billion. That’s a $3.5 billion net loss yearly.”
That’s why Mr. Sawicki, of Southold, a former state assemblyman, has long advocated secession of Nassau and Suffolk and their formation into the 51st state. “If the LIA would put time and effort working for secession, that would provide us with real tax relief. Consolidating the two counties into one county would simply “cause the financial problems of Nassau to be dumped on Suffolk,” he said.
Nassau and Suffolk have different histories. Suffolk’s goes back to 1683 as one of the 12 original counties of New York. Nassau was formed in 1899 after the western portion of Queens County became a borough of New York City and eastern Queens became Nassau.
I remember, growing up in Queens in the 50s, taking my bicycle into a green Nassau County. Riding through distinct communities not, like now, blurred in sprawl. Going to Lollipop Farm in Syosset. Give the bulldozer boys who paved over Nassau great sway in Suffolk? No sir.