Whatever else he does in his career as the top elected official of Nassau County, New York, Tom Suozzi will be remembered as the guy who made it just another old inner suburb — beset by the usual traffic congestion, high home prices, pockets of poverty and outdated infrastructure. This, believe it or not, is a major improvement.
When he was elected county executive in 2001, Suozzi, a Democrat, inherited a county that was not just on the brink of disaster but had toppled over and was nearing terminal velocity. Nassau makes up the western end of Long Island and is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation in terms of per-capita income, but years of fiscally imprudent governance by an entrenched political machine had cost it dearly.
It had amassed nearly $3 billion in debt; its bonds were at junk status; the state had created a financial oversight board and was threatening to take over; public buildings were close to condemnable; roads and parks were going to ruin; and the county’s administrative apparatus ranked among the least effective in the country.
Even before he was elected as executive, Suozzi persuaded the narrow Democratic majority in the county legislature to pass a 19.4 percent tax increase for the 2002 budget. Once in office, the former accountant and attorney set out methodically to get the county back on its feet. He worked with the state oversight authority to spread out the county’s debt service and cut back drastically on capital spending. He pared the workforce to its smallest level in three decades, renegotiated contracts with the police and fire unions, reshaped the administrative structure and held meetings with county employees to tell them, “Nobody ever gets to say, ’That’s the way it’s always been done.’”
The result is that Nassau is slowly climbing back to respectability. It has balanced its budget every year since Suozzi took over; built up $200 million in reserve funds; had 10 upgrades of its bonds, to the point where it is back in the all-important ranks that start with “A”; and reduced from 16 percent to 12.5 percent the portion of every dollar going to debt service.
But now that Nassau “just has the same problems as everyone else,” as the 43-year-old Suozzi puts it, he wants to turn it into a model for how old suburbs revitalize themselves. “Instead of being a transactional leader, he sees himself as a transformational leader,” says Michael D’Innocenzo, a historian at Hofstra University.
This is not without its political risks, especially if — as in Suozzi’s case — it’s done with apparent disregard for the diplomatic arts. Suozzi has made no effort to work with the GOP minority in the county legislature, and he is roundly disliked by both Democrats and Republicans in the state capital for his “Fix Albany” initiative, an effort to end the velvety electoral comfort that incumbent legislators enjoy. As Newsday recently put it, “Suozzi melds a reformer’s sensibility with a lightning rod’s ability to pull destructive forces from the sky. He honestly seems to believe he can kick opponents in the head one day, and have them willingly do his bidding the next.”
Yet much of what Suozzi is aiming at makes sense. He argues that built-out suburban counties have to get their fiscal houses in order by addressing their own, internal inefficiencies, and then by insisting that state governments stop passing down unfunded mandates. He launched his “Fix Albany” campaign after trying to craft a sewer and stormwater authority that got hung up in state legislative politics and used it to persuade the legislature to help counties deal with soaring Medicaid costs.
Then, Suozzi argues, counties have to figure out how to grow. As mayor of Glen Cove from 1993 to 2001, he focused on brownfield and downtown redevelopment. In Nassau’s case, his plan includes encouraging high-tech industry, building up its sports and entertainment facilities, expanding public transit, addressing the county’s growing poverty rate and promoting denser housing development that is affordable for young people and seniors. “We want to keep all the things we love about suburbia,” he says, “and attack the problems.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by David Lubarsky