Asked by Anton Media Group to describe her hopes, dreams and aspirations for 2021, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran had no hesitation when discussing her top issue.
“The first word that pops into my head is ‘vaccine.’ We need wide distribution so that we can get back to normal,” she said.
The coronavirus vaccine is intrinsically tied to the 2021 fortunes of not only the county, but Curran herself; she’s expected to seek reelection this year.
Last spring’s lockdown led to a precipitous decline in economic activity and a reduction in sales tax collections, which account for about 40 percent of the revenues in the county budget.
Thanks to a healthy rainy day fund, restructuring of the debt and selected budget cuts, Curran was able to present a 2021 spending plan that did not raise property taxes, lay off any of the workforce or cut any services. The proposed budget anticipates sales tax revenues to rise by only 1.5 percent compared to the depressed 2020 level. Though accounting complexities make year-to-year comparisons difficult, the estimate is that last year saw about a 12 percent decline in sales tax revenue, compared to 2019.
“Do you see any financial roadblocks or red lights down the road?” Curran was asked.
“I’m always concerned with our local economy,” she replied. “Forty percent of our revenue comes from sales taxes. I want to keep people working, not just for our own revenue reasons, but [because] our economy is really important. We need to keep people working and that’s why I’m concerned about these [infection] numbers going up. I want to make sure that people continue to use common sense and use those protocols that we know work to mitigate the spread of the virus so that we can keep the economy going and keep businesses functioning.”
Curran believes people got a better knowledge of the functions of local government thanks to the pandemic.
“A lot of people, through no fault of their own, [have a hard time] figuring out what the county does. What the town does. What the village does. To sort it all out, who does what,” she said. “But I think during this pandemic people really got a sense of what the county is. We’re the ones with the health department and the contact tracers and the ambulances, for the most part. We have, unfortunately, the morgue and the medical examiner’s office, which have really ramped up through COVID. We have all the outreach services, the department of social services to help with the food drives and help with a lot of mental health issues.”
She added, “The whole point in getting into that litany is that I did not want the county to be in a position to cut any of these important services. So by refinancing the debt, I was happy that we were able in the end to work in a bipartisan way to get that done. I think it was a good solution for our residents.”
Another big item in 2021 is criminal justice and police reform
Last June, Governor Andrew Cuomo promulgated Executive order 203, which ordered municipalities with police forces “to perform a comprehensive review of their current procedures and practices and to develop plans for addressing inherent racial biases.”
Municipalities must submit a plan to the state by April 1 of this year or risk losing state aid, per the governor.
Curran has to finalize contracts with several police unions this year and was asked, “You’ve gotten criticism that the labor contracts will somehow undermine the effort at police reform. How would you respond?”
“The collective bargaining concerns itself with two very simple things. How often do you show up to work? And how often do you get paid?” she replied. “A lot of the reforms that we’re talking about, things like implicit bias training or mental health training or increasing the mobile crisis unit that works with the police department—all that is really managerial prerogative. And that sort of thing is never covered in a contract.”
She added, “We are fully committed to police reform. Right after the killing of George Floyd we weren’t waiting for executive orders from the state. We formed a group called PACT that stands for Police And Community Trust. And it’s made up of protesters and young people and organizers and actual police officers. And we have assorted other stakeholders as well.”
Curran said that the county ramped up its outreach efforts after the executive order, getting input via town halls and other avenues.
“We’re actually going to make the first draft public Jan. 7 for people to have a look at it,” according to Curran. “And we’ll be asking for more input based on that draft. The takeaway from the town halls is the importance of having positive interactions between young people and police as young as possible. It really makes a difference.”
With Democrats poised to control all three branches of the federal government, Curran was hopeful that some kind of direct aid to the states and municipalities might be in the works. This was part of the CARES Act passed by the House last year, but blocked by the Senate and left out of the $900 billion stimulus bill passed in December.
Asked what she would wish from this possible aid, Curran joked, “I’ll ask for one billion dollars (laughs), it’s like asking a kid what they’d like for Christmas.”
An aide reminded her of the infrastructure stimulus Curran asked for last month.
“I’m a big fan of infrastructure and getting stuff done,” the county executive observed. “We have 12 shovel-ready projects right now. And the stimulus request for that is $583 million. It would provide lots of temporary jobs and wonderful construction jobs and long term jobs as well as hundreds of millions in economic activity.”
“You talk with business leaders. Do you get a sense of the devastation caused by the pandemic?” she was asked.
“I speak with business people all the time,” she replied. “Some are doing very well. Some are really suffering. And the ones suffering the most are the smaller downtown mom and pop stores, the restaurant and bars. It’s be really difficult for them with this 10 o’clock shutdown. A lot of them have seen 25 percent of their business evaporate.”
Making use of federal funds, Curran introduced the Restaurant Recovery Grant Program (RRGP) in November.
Per a press release, “The program is intended to support full-service restaurants—the industry hit hardest by the pandemic—during the winter months when outdoor dining is limited and as restaurants adjust to New York State’s COVID-19 safety restrictions and new mandates.”
“There was a real demand for it,” Curran affirmed. “It was a $2.2 million investment. About 300 restaurants got a grant of either $5,000 or $10,000 depending on how many employees they had. And when we opened it up on the website it went like hotcakes because of the need. I know the need is great. They’ve invested so much money in partitions and sanitizing and filters. And of course, 50 percent capacity is really difficult for them.”
She added, “But I was really inspired and happy to see over the summer all the creative ways restaurants used outdoor space, whether it was parking lots or sidewalks or curbside. It was one of the few bright points of the crazy last year.”
In his State of the State addresses, the governor talked of legalizing marijuana as a revenue raising possibility. She was asked if she would be opposed to the idea.
“[Two years ago] we put together a task force with health people, law enforcement, business people, municipal leaders, faith leaders, etc. A whole wide group. And the conclusion was that in Nassau County we were not ready [for legalization],” she answered. “Do we have the technology to test driving while high on marijuana? We don’t have anything that’s been proven that I’ve seen. That being said, I have not read the [governor’s proposal] to see exactly what it says. But not a lot has changed in one year.”
There is a lot on the executive’s plate, but again she returned to the virus and the vaccines.
She stated, “I’ll be so curious to see, once this vaccine is widely distributed, how long it will take for people to be ‘unscared’—when do we start shaking hands again? When do we go to cocktail parties? When do we take off our masks? It will be a very interesting year to acclimate ourselves back to normal.”
Curran concluded, “I’m hopeful to continue to support our business and smart growth and our downtowns as much as possible. We want more housing options for young people. Right now people are looking at Nassau as a great place to live, and I want to make sure that we have the proper housing at different price points. We have beautiful downtowns, walkable communities, thriving businesses. That’s my dream for 2021.”