Too often political debates fail to really clarify the comparable merits of candidates. But in the match up between Democrat Judi Bosworth and Republican Dina DeGiorgio vying for the open seat as North Hempstead Town Supervisor, the differences between them - their vision, command of facts and understanding of issues - and even more dramatically, the fundamentally different philosophy of what government should be - were profound.
Dina DeGiorgio, the Republican candidate who bases her candidacy on her two years on the Town Council and her experience as a lawyer and mediator, was distinguished in my mind by three areas that form the basis for her agenda if she were to be elected Town Supervisor: her broad unsubstantiated accusations of "insider" deals and political patronage jobs within Town Hall in terms of hiring practices and contracts; her dire predictions of fiscal calamity based on her assessment that the town has $85 million in short-term bonds virtually interest-free that must by law be converted to long-term debt at much higher interest by 2017 and that debt service accounts for 89 cents of every $1 of town revenue; her defense of her 'no' vote in the Town's partnership with the Great Neck Arts Center in the form of the town's acquisition of the arts center's premises and the singularity of her solution to every challenge: Cut. She defined herself as embracing Republican philosophy: small government and individual responsibility.
In contrast, Judi Bosworth, the Democratic candidate, who brings 23 years of experience as an elected official, and who, during her 16-year tenure on the Great Neck School Board actually managed budgets as big as the Town's as well as overseeing large capital programs and bond issues and had to find solutions for challenges that would work for often competing constituencies (students, parents, teachers, administrators, school personnel and taxpayers, with and without children in the system), manifest extraordinary fact-based knowledge of the Town's finances, its projects, its challenges.
One moment in the League of Women Voters debate in particular stands out, even though the issue that was raised was not a blockbuster one like the Building Department (both candidates promise to improve the culture and streamline the permit process). This issue was of grave concern to John Butnick, who said he was a Nassau County park ranger at Hempstead Harbor Beach. He had asked the same question of each and every panel of candidates from the county and town with no real response. Now he asked the same question for the fourth time about his concern that a portion of the park, which was taken over from Nassau County, was being used as a school bus depot and for storage by the town's highway department. Bosworth was the only one who had insights into the source of the problem and made a clear commitment to restore the park for recreational purpose.
"I’m not in the town now," Bosworth said, "but I know there was an intermunicipal agreement between Manhasset School district and the town and I questioned that. Park land should be used for park purposes. This is a great expanse of land that the town council had proposed for industrial use. I visited that land. I can see this is not land for industrial use. We need a plan as to what to do with park land, the beach. This has to be used for nature trails, hiking, habitat, recreational area. The town has such a beautiful area there, there needs such environmental work to be done to enhance the beach, clean the water. We need to do it with a defined plan, step by step, making sure the land is being used for recreational use."
DeGiorgio also said that refurbishing the park would be a priority for her, and in response to my questions afterward, also said that increasing utilization of the Yes We Can Center at New Castle would be a key agenda item.
But on the subject of command of facts and a vision for the future, Bosworth has it in spades, and DeGiorgio does not, despite the fact that Bosworth has been serving on the Nassau County Legislature the past six years and DeGiorgio has been on the Town Council for the last two. In fact, DeGiorgio did not just twist numbers around to make her point that Town residents need to be afraid, very afraid of the impending burst bubble of debt, she did not have accurate numbers at all.
DeGiorgio kept repeating this pillar of her agenda, that the town was facing a fiscal debacle in the year 2017 because of debt - because that mindset about finances would affect all decision-making and programming going forward. She repeated the claim that $85 million in short term debt will be converted to long term debt in 2017 at quadruple the interest rate, and further claimed that the town spends 89 cents for every $1 of tax revenue to pay off debt.
Bosworth put the figure at closer to 30 cents. So who is right? So I investigated....
And I found that DeGiorgio absolutely did not know what she was talking about. That is frightening in someone who is seeking to be not just the chairman of the Town Council, but also the CEO of the Town, charged with management oversight, for setting policy and the future direction of the town. Would DeGiorgio be the person who could come up with something as innovative as the 311 system, as socially conscious as Project Independence, as smart as the Office of Intermunicipal Cooperation and the Office of Tourism and Business Development, as worthwhile as turning the Great Neck Arts Center into a truly town-wide Gold Coast Arts Center to improve the cultural and quality of life of residents as well as serve as an economic engine for the community?
So here are the figures:
The 2013 budget which DeGiorgio voted on (she voted no) amounted to $123,124,277 (up 1.53%, and within the state's tax cap). Of that amount, $70,878,020 comes from taxes (the rest is made up from sales tax revenues and fees).
The Town’s General Fund currently has $74 million in long-term bonds and $76 million in short-term notes for a total of $150 million. The total amount of town debt has stayed between $130 million and $160 million since 2007. The current short term notes are mainly as a result of issuing debt for large infrastructure projects conducted over the past few years such as the “Yes We Can Community” Center in New Castle (which DeGiorgio said she supported), the reconstructed pool at Manorhaven Beach Park, the new aquatic center at Tully Park, and the turf athletic fields at Manhasset Valley Park.
In other words, debt is being issued for long-term capital projects which benefit the town, not to pay operating expenses (which is the controversy at the County level).
Of the total town-wide operating budget, In 2014, 26.97% of the general fund budget is dedicated to debt service, which is down from 28.5% in 2013 -or about $35 million of the $123 million general fund goes to pay debt service. which is the figure that Bosworth used of 30 cents per dollar of revenue. Even taking DeGiorgio's figure of how much of tax revenue goes to pay off debt service, which is a emotional point but not a matter of governance, the figure is closer to 50 cents, not 89 cents.
And let's be reminded how much Town tax we pay: for the average Town residential property, at $442,000, the general fund levy works out to $193 in 2013 ($196 for 2014, up 1.72%).
DeGiorgio also made the wildly inaccurate claim that $85 million in short-term debt will be converted to long-term debt at quadruple the interest rate, which raises questions about what kind of steward she would be.
But as I learned, "As of today, in 2017, $22.8 million of the $76 million in short-term notes are scheduled to be converted to long-term debt. We retire approximately $14 million each year in debt. In fact, in 2013 we will pay off more principal debt than we took on, and we are intend to do the same in 2014," according to the Town Controller's office.
The level of long-term indebtedness has in fact been cut in half since 2007, when bonding debt then was $143 million and today is $73 million. Basically, the town took advantage of the historically low interest rates on short-term debt, 0.5% (now up to .27% thanks to the Republican threat to default), versus 3% on long-term debt, saving $3 million in debt service.
What is more, one of the biggest drags on the town's indebtedness, this absurd liability owed from the Sumitomo lawsuit dating back to the Newburger Administration, will be paid off by 2016.
And lest you believe this is political machinations with the numbers, the Moody's credit rating agency has given the Town an Aa1 rating, which is the highest it has ever been in Town's history, which reflects their assessment of solid financial position. "This is despite near term reserve declines, given management’s conservative budgeting, especially of the economically sensitive sales tax and mortgage tax. The Aa1 rating also factors the town’s enhanced long-term financial planning and internal controls, large and affluent tax base, and a declining debt burden driven by proactive debt management strategies," the Comptroller's office stated.
And it bears noting that, our quality of life in the Town, including our fiscal position and our housing values, have been improved since the 2008 fiscal collapse that caused such calamity in other communities. That is actually remarkable.
So DeGiorgio's failure to understand the Town's finances - which essentially is the fuel for whatever progress the town will make and the underpinning for the services that make for our quality of life - is the clearest statement of why she does not have what it takes to be the Town Supervisor.
And while these figures might be used to support the Jon Kaiman administration, he is not running. But Bosworth is, and from all her statements, her prior record, she has demonstrated that she would be a Town Supervisor in the same vein of someone who builds up and doesn't break down, someone with vision and the intelligence and pragmatism to make the finances work. She has always proved responsible in handling budgets and shown concern for taxpayers.
Politicians, usually outsiders, love to promise open government, but Bosworth has proven that this philosophy is at her core throughout more than 20 years as an elected official, most clearly when she was President of Great Neck's Board of Education, a municipality that is as complex to run as the town.
Bosworth has demonstrated her competence, her expertise and the way she engages constituencies in the way she managed the school district's capital projects and a budget the size of the Town's, worked with the Lockheed Martin company on addressing the plume of water contamination threatening the Great Neck Peninsula water supply, her work on the County Legislature, where she has been extraordinarily responsive to constituents (hosting health fairs, tax grievance seminars) the way she addressed important issues such as the privatization of Long Island Bus (she was the one who made sure that Able Ride was preserved), the consolidation of police precincts, the Mangano Administration's warped budget priorities, all are clear demonstrations of her temperment, her talent, her leadership qualities, her priorities and guiding philosophy she will marshal as Town Supervisor.
She offered one example of her ability to bring people to the table, forge consensus and get things done: there was an issue of flooding in New Hyde Park at Allen Street. "The county wasn’t taking responsibility, the town wasn’t. Everyone had their own version, vision. I was able to bring the town and county DPWs together and found a way of mitigating the problem so there is not that kind of flooding again."
Bosworth was also remarkably abreast of various projects and issues in the Town. A project to introduce a ferry service from Glen Cove to New York City, for example. DeGiorgio was skeptical but said she would be in favor of seeing if there were grants available.
Bosworth said, "Someone sent me the projects. My interns this summer spent a lot of time going through it – learned a lot about the proposal. I thought it had great prospects, because we do need to look for other sources of transportation other than cars." Some of the questions that need to be answer first would be what the ferry would cost, whether the fares would be competitive with the railroad. "It is certainly something we should look into, if we could apply for grant money and seeing what other obligations for the town would be."
A clear difference between the two candidates was demonstrated in the issue of the Town's support for the Great Neck Arts Center (soon to be renamed the Gold Coast Arts Center), which is presently in the midst of its third annual Gold Coast International Film Festival that draws filmgoers from all over, puts North Hempstead as a destination on the cultural and visitor map and is a lynchpin to the economic vitality of the downtown.
DeGiorgio said she opposed the Town's purchase of the art centers' facility. "The town was basically purchasing a building from a charity that was in financial distress and needed the town. That’s not what government should be doing. If the charity is in financial distress and can’t maintain itself, maybe the property should be sold and the charity relocate. Not to criticize the arts center or cultural program, but the town can’t spend $1 million to acquire and maintain and operate the center. We have many beautiful buildings in North Hempstead- most recent, the Yes We Can Community Center. If we have a town arts program, it should be from the New Castle center, which is underutilized."
Bosworth said, "Dina was quoted as saying we don’t need the Great Neck Arts Center. I disagree, we do need it. It isn’t a charity, it's an arts center that brings cultural value to the town. We talk about revitalizing the town, here you have an arts center that brings movies, plays, art activities for children. If that center closes and you have hole [on main street] that's not good for the town. So the town took over [its space in the building]. That showed great vision on [Supervisor] Kaiman's part: the town paid $800,000 on a property valued at $3 million – a pretty darn good investment. The Great Neck Arts Center couldn’t just relocate; it would have dissolved. We are now looking at the [third annual] Gold Coast International Film Festival, which increases our sources of revenue. It will bring people to restaurants, hotels, and not just Great Neck, but it is in Manhasset, Roslyn, Port Washington."
These are the fundamentals of Town Government. The everyday nuts and bolts that make for our quality of life, and address the fundamental issue of sustainable economic growth as the way to address the seemingly unending rise in property taxes, rather than slashing the very services and failing to improve infrastructure that keep our community vibrant and the Town of North Hempstead one of the best places to live, work and retire in the nation. Bosworth gets that.
As she stated in her opening statement at the League of Women Voters of Port Washington-Manhasset debate: "I am a Democrat and identify with these principles: equality, inclusion, fairness and social justice.
"I am now running to represent all the people of Town regardless of party. As an elected official for over 20 years, my interest of community always come first. I have consistently worked to identify practical solutions that bring people together, emphasizing common ground and mitigating partisan."
Truer words have never been spoken during an election campaign.
Judi Bosworth deserves election as North Hempstead Town Supervisor.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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