Yesterday, I had a chance to sit down with Legis. Ed Mangano (R-Bethpage), who is challenging Tom Suozzi in the election for Nassau County Executive. We had a spirited conversation that discussed the Lighthouse Project, mass transit, and economic development (we also spoke about taxes, but both the debates centered largely on taxes, and I thought it would make sense to chart new ground).
Since this is the first interview with a candidate for office that I've run, please allow me to go through the ground rules that I've established: I will not be endorsing candidates in this race, and I will not editorialize on what I have heard from the candidates. You can make your own decision after reading our discussion.
With that being said, away we go, and sincere thanks to Mr. Mangano for his time.
Nick: We will start with the most basic question...What is your position on the Lighthouse Project?
Ed Mangano: I am very excited about it. We want to see the Islanders stay here [in Nassau County], and we want to see the property re-developed. Obviously, [the land currently has] cracked pavement, with grass growing through it....the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is worn; it could definitely support a refurbishment. This kind of public-private partnership is something the government should explore, and in particular, in this case, I am thrilled with the project in terms of its renewal to the Coliseum, and I eagerly await the Town of Hempstead's completion of its state-mandated environmental review process. I am certain that the Town of Hempstead will forward a project that is sustainable, and I look forward to supporting it. The law has to be complied with, and from what I can see, we are near the end of that process.
Nick: How do you think the Town of Hempstead has handled [the environmental review process] so far?
Ed: My understanding and my inquiries are that the Town of Hempstead is moving rapidly through a very complex New York State-mandated process. I think they have it for about 20 months. This is typically a two-year process, but they are moving as quickly as possible. There are questions, and from my understanding the process can be moved more quickly if the applicant answers those questions quickly, as well. They have to get through this process: questions asked, questions answered, and the project moves along.
Nick: On the questions side, what specific questions or concerns do you have [about the Lighthouse Project] that either need to be answered or have not been answered?
Ed: The agency responsible for the environmental review must come back to Nassau County [the land-owner] and certify that the project is sustainable...the project works. That means the ingress and egress work, there is enough water available to support the project, there is enough fire service available to support that project. Oftentimes, when you have a large project like this, these pieces are not there at the start, and the environmental review process allows the applicant to answer how they will address these, so they can solve the problems that are raised. At the end of the day, when the project is approved by the Town, it must come back with all these questions answered...The state-mandated process came out of what we used to have on Long Island decades ago, haphazard development. You can drive through many neighborhoods and ask yourself "How did that building get here?" or "Why is that building so close to the curb? Why did they cut a road off to put it up?"....Now, you have to take the bitter with the sweet. We have this state-mandated process, and we have to go through the entire thing. [SEQR] is good because it helps avoid the mistakes of the past, but on the other side it is very lengthy. My personal opinion is that New York State should take a look at the time involved with these processes, and perhaps reform the process in cutting down the time it takes to get it done.
Nick: Currently, the Town of Hempstead controls the process. What do you believe is the proper role the Nassau County Executive should take until the Town of Hempstead finishes its duties?
Ed: 1, Nassau County should be respectful of the state-mandated process. Government officials should understand it more than the private sector....because government imposed this process...Nassau County should assist in the process by providing any information that could be used to streamline the [environmental review]. I think Nassau County should be a communicator with the Town, working together to get the process completed. Unfortunately, what you see now is a lot of polarization....I believe the present County Executive [Tom Suozzi] has used [the Lighthouse] too much as a press tool and a re-election tool, rather than what would be in the best interests of the County, working together with the Town. It doesn't happen because [Suozzi] polarizes people.
In my experience with economic development, we had success re-developing 500 acres of the old Grumman property. [We worked] with the community, and every layer of government, regardless of party - if the people elected you, you get a seat at the table, which I think is a difference between me and the present County Executive....We found that, because of the high level of communication, we didn't have the objections [from the public or other levels of government], and we returned 15,000 jobs on a property that is much larger [than the proposed Lighthouse Project].
Nick: In terms of bringing people together...the Town of Hempstead and Supervisor Kate Murray did not like to meet about the Lighthouse because they knew they would eventually have to vote on it. what could have been done to bring her to the table when it was clear they were interested in going a different way? What is the role of the County Executive in that instance?
Ed: First, the County Executive needs to respect the policy of those who hold jurisdiction. You are correct that the Town of Hempstead has a policy that they will not sit with developers as elected officials. However, where [Nassau County] failed in involving the Town of Hempstead is that [the Town will] send staff to assist in guiding developers through the process that is required in the Town of Hempstead, and that is where the ball was dropped. [Tom Suozzi] cut out those who could have been involved at an early stage. Communication is king when you want to streamline a very complicated process. Rather than going in a direction that will create more bureaucracy, you might be able to go in a direction that streamlines the process. My experience in development is that communication is king. Don't assume that someone will do something or that the residents know about it; you need to make a concerted effort to bring people together and move it forward.
Nick: When you talk about bringing people together, do you think the Lighthouse has done enough to engage the population? It seems that way, since the polls show that, among those with a position, supporters outnumber opponents 2-1 [with 25% of respondents unsure or with no opinion].
Ed: I think the Lighthouse has done a good job, but the problem is you have the County Executive admonishing the Town of Hempstead and giving the impression that they're doing something wrong. That's not how you work together to streamline a process.
Nick: Do you think that policy has cost us time?
Ed: Well, why was the project languishing in the County for 5 years? That's a question I have asked but nobody has been able to answer. He is running for a third term on the same issue, and it has only been in the Town of Hempstead for 20 months. You need to work with people, not pit them against each other. [The Lighthouse] has become a polarizing issue, a political issue, and job creation is not a political issue. Everyone needs a job and an opportunity to work...and that's why you have to take politics out of job creation.
Nick: I and other bloggers have been concerned that the project has become politicized. In your opinion, has the project become politicized, and, as a Republican, does it disappoint you that more Republicans besides Sen. Dean Skelos, Assemb. Fred Thiele, and Assemb. Bob Barra, have not publicly endorsed the project?
Ed: It's politicized because [Tom Suozzi] has made the Lighthouse into "are you for it or against it?" - I have not met one elected official who is not in favor of keeping the Islanders here and re-developing the Coliseum. However, [if you follow Tom Suozzi's statements] it looks like the Town of Hempstead is the bad guy. It's not a yes or no - they need to do their job and decide the proper level. We are all for the Lighthouse Project; nobody wants the land to stay as it is, a vacant parking lot with weeds growing out of it. [Tom Suozzi has] polarized it, made it political by using it in political speeches, he's highly partisan...it's just wrong.
Nick: I've been big on the future of suburbia, and what is and isn't suburban. Do you endorse the vision that we can have pockets of density in Nassau County while maintaining the single-family homes on quiet streets favored by the majority of residents?
Ed: I endorse the vision that mixed-use property works in a suburban environment. You just need to make sure the environmental concerns are identified and addressed. Everyone who deals in this area knows SEQR is a cumbersome process, and it is not in the Town's jurisdiction to change it; they must comply with it....Nassau County should be out there telling residents how they are working together with the Town, and they should see if there are opportunities to bring in officials from the state and federal governments to answer the necessary questions more quickly. Let's bring people together so we can all come out of the room and tell the people of Nassau County that we did this for them, together, but [Tom Suozzi] doesn't want to do that.
Nick: Do you think that, at the end of the day, the project will get approved? Also, we've seen the lease agreement announced (though it can't be sent to the Legislature until re-zoning is approved)...do you think that lease is a good deal for the taxpayers of Nassau County?
Ed: Tom Suozzi can't send the lease to the Legislature because the people of Nassau County need to have their land appraised; that's the law. However, I believe the Town of Hempstead will approve the project as long as the parties continue to work together. In my experience, every project, from a 7-11 to the largest building in the state, has been negotiated and modified because of the SEQR process...Every project these days on Long Island...must have some form of remediation, and I don't think [the Lighthouse Project] is unlike that. If you look historically, the Town of Hempstead will work with the developer on some kind of resolution, and if they can do that we will have a project. The next question is, what happens then? After that, the project comes back to Nassau County, which will provide a lease for the people's land, but the lease needs to be appraised. As long as the appraisal comes back equal to the value set in the lease, there will not be an issue, and the project should pass swiftly through Nassau County. If [the County Executive and the developers] did their job on the lease, we will not see a problem in the Nassau County part. The lengthy process is happening now.
Nick: In a previous life, I worked for one of the large management consulting firms. I remember having clients in New Jersey, Westchester, and Connecticut, and taking NJ Transit and Metro-North trains packed with people who lived in the city and worked in these areas. I've been on similar Long Island Rail Road trains and had a six-seater to myself. Are you concerned that Nassau County and Long Island are falling behind the region, and what do you believe you can do if elected County Executive to attract businesses to the area?
Ed: Let's get away from the mega-projects here....Let's look at what's happening in Nassau County: if you drive through any town, vacant storefronts are rampant. Small businesses are dropping like flies, and we have a new kind of blight: the vacant auto dealership. I have a concrete plan that I believe will help to fill up these vacant properties: a Green Energy Fund. I have legislation that I've introduced that will provide homeowners and business owners loans to convert their homes or businesses to alternative energy sources, such as geothermal and solar. We will loan money, and they will pay us back through a portion of their energy savings every month...When that loan comes about, it puts home improvement businesses such as electricians and HVAC back to work. We'll encourage these businesses to locate in the abandoned dealerships and create a cottage industry of converting Long Island to renewable energy. There is a lot of work out there, many homes are candidates for green energy, and the environment gets cleaner. We will also expand this to the government, providing private sector work in converting County buildings to renewable energy. I believe the real work for a County Executive in the next term is to put people back to work, and it's beyond the Lighthouse Project, even though I believe that will go through. There are a lot of good things embodied in the Lighthouse Project, but we need to get the overall economy going.
I believe the Lighthouse Project will get done...the dark horse is whether or not the developers will be able to obtain financing. That tells me that we need to get our economy going.
Nick: I have another question about bringing businesses in. I've noticed that these other areas have different types of office buildings: walkable environments in complexes. Do you think there is a need for a different kind of "stock," both in office buildings and apartment-style housing, or do you think Long Island can improve with what it already has?
Ed: There is a statistical need for rental housing on Long Island. I think if we had more rental options, you would not see as many Long Island homeowners facing foreclosure or stuck with mortgages they can't afford. People are getting married later, the divorce rate is up, and it seems to me that there is nothing wrong with a young couple starting off in an apartment. There is room for rental housing.
Nick: I want to move to public transit, because I believe the only two ways to mitigate the traffic problem are to eliminate bottlenecks and get people out of their cars. How do you think public transit fits in Nassau County?
Ed: The present County Executive is proposing that the County stop subsidizing Long Island Bus and pass the costs onto the MTA. That sounds good...but the MTA is responding to this by cutting bus service, and people now have trouble getting to work in the morning...The dilemma for Long Island is how to deal with this, because a significant part of the population relies on the buses to get to and from work. In my mind, mass transit has to be an integral part of the County's plans to meet the needs of its people and economy. I'm for working with the MTA and trying to get them to accept the burden, but I will not cut bus service to do so. We will continue to subsidize it to help people get to work, because the subsidy is small compared to the number of people who rely on public transit to get to work, make a living, support their families, and put that money back into the local economy.
Nick: I remember reading that Long Island Bus set a record for ridership last year.
Ed: It's true - look at the buses! They're not running around empty; they are full at the peak times when people are going to/from work.
Nick: Do you think the bus system, on its own, is an adequate public transit solution for Nassau County?
Ed: When you talk about "solutions," you need to first identify the problems and come up with an idea to solve that specific problem. There have been suggestions that light rail and mini-buses can work in certain areas, and I believe there is no one solution to solve this problem of enhancing our economy. We need to look at what we want to achieve and find a way to do it. It's very simple - and you're a business person - if you have a business, you are concerned that you have a place where you can operate and your workers can easily get to and from your place of business. I've dealt with major re-developments, such as the former Grumman property, and the two questions we always hear are "Where is the labor pool?" and "How is the public transportation?" - and that is why you need to have it. If you are making a development, you need to provide a way for people to get there...I like looking at monorail and different alternate transportation systems that work.
In Bethpage, I've lobbied for an additional LIRR stop at the Grumman property - and there used to be one in its heyday, when it was a defense contractor. We should have a stop there and let people get off in the center of where they're working.....Everything comes down to funds, and that's usually where these grand plans and visions hit a bottleneck.
Nick: I hope I can end with two open-ended questions. I mentioned that I spent a lot of time in Connecticut as a consultant, and that state recently abolished County-level government. They now only have state government and local government. I'm not advocating that, but do you think, given that your major issue is taxes, that these different layers of government play a large role in the tax burden? What can a County Executive do to mitigate this?
Ed: With our levels of government, there is no room for duplicate services, and the different layers should come together to minimize that. With that having been said, look at the County's function: police, court system, judicial system, the jail, corrections, the DA's office....there is a lot of serious work that goes into providing these services, and you can't eliminate the County unless someone steps up to do this work. In the same vein, you have a park system....I'm in favor of preserving that park system...Our obligation is to oversee that and turn it over to the next generation. In the same vein, public works - who will deal with sewage?
Nick: Right, and I'm talking about the local level, too - the school taxes are the overwhelming majority of the property tax burden; how can the County work to mitigate that?
Ed: People talk about the need for affordable housing on Long Island, but, if you step back, the property taxes are making housing unaffordable. If you can get your arms wrapped around that problem, you can make Nassau County affordable for everyone who wants to live and work there...Many people currently pay more in property taxes per month than they do on their mortgage payment, and it used to not be like that...It's a serious issue, and the road to affordability has to come with real property tax reform.
Nick: And what role could you play as County Executive?
Ed: First, each level of government has to be responsible for its own budget. Nassau County has to stop blaming other levels of government and get itself together, and hopefully it could become a positive example for other levels of government as well. Maybe people from other levels of government [use the County to find efficiencies and eliminate duplicate services]. People are really asking us to stop the waste and stop the duplication, and I think there is plenty of room in government to do that.
Nick: We'll close with a brief statement...The overwhelming majority of my readers are pro-Lighthouse, so, when it comes down to it, why should a pro-Lighthouse voter in Nassau County vote for you for County Executive?
Ed: You can vote for Ed Mangano because Ed Mangano got it done in Bethpage. You can come down [to the old Grumman property] and see 15,000 people going to work every day. You'll see a community center, both blue-collar and white-collar jobs, 750 units of affordable housing, a heliport, police aviation, a college, a hotel. We have mixed-use development; it's here, and we did it the right way. I will bring my skills in job creation and bureaucratic cutting to this project to get it done.
Coming later today: an interview with Kristen McElroy, Democratic challenger for Town of Hempstead Supervisor.
Please share your thoughts in comments. Petition. Email Me. Follow me on Twitter. Become a fan on Facebook.