The following appears in the October 21-27, 2011 issue of the Long Island Business News:
Managing New York’s local governments has not been an enviable job in recent years. Unfunded state mandates, plus a weak economy plus declining residential and commercial real estate values do not always equal easily balanced budgets.
However, hardworking magistrates who are not afraid to exercise their authority and take on entrenched bureaucrats are succeeding in keeping the wolves away from their municipal doors. Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino is a fine example of such an official. Since taking office in January 2010, he has proven to be an effective and tenacious executive who has put Westchester on the road to fiscal stability.
In my search for such a leader on Long Island, I drove out to Islip and spent some time with Town Supervisor Phil Nolan. Elected in a 2006 special election for the vacancy created by a judge who sentenced long-time incumbent Pete McGowan to jail, Nolan came to the job well-versed in the machinations of local governments.
As a former chief of staff to a mayor of Yonkers, Nolan learned a lot in a city that was broke and under the thumb of a state-appointed emergency control board. He figured out that scrutinizing every expenditure and saving money on even the smallest scale are not only the bases of good management but also send a strong message that business as usual will not be tolerated.
One of Nolan’s first shots across the government’s bow was the elimination of “confidential pay.” What, you ask, is that? It’s a good question because in my 40 years of studying government operations I have never heard of such an arrangement. The answer: In 2006, 21 Islip town employees secretly received additional compensation totaling $120,000 annually above union contracts. Newsday condemned this scam as “irrational and arbitrary compensation, flying in the face of civil service.” By revealing and terminating this perk, the establishment learned there was a new sheriff in town.
Next, Nolan significantly cut back the use of non-emergency vehicles by town employees. The number of autos used for personal commuting was cut from 155 to 83, a 46 percent drop that is saving taxpayers $200,000 annually. Responding to whining bureaucrats, Nolan said: “Some people might think this is trivial, but it is a classic example of use of public assets for private gain.”
To save the town another $50,000 a year, Nolan reformed mobile phone policies: Thirty-six percent of the phones were deemed unnecessary and the contracts were cancelled. Investigators discovered that approximately 3 percent were used by people who had left or retired from government service.
By applying a common-sense approach, Nolan has also cut back overtime yearly by $300,000 without compromising safety. Many weekend projects were put off until Monday and night work was reassigned to daytime. And, after a protracted battle with town legislators, Nolan received approval to eliminate an outlandish perk: health care benefits for part-time members of local boards. The savings: another $300,000 annually.
Finally, Nolan has pared back town employment from a high of 1,029 to 730, a 29 percent deduction. That’s pretty impressive.
Total cuts have averaged about $8 million a year for a total of $40.4 million since Nolan took office. With the town’s operating budget at about $120 million, these savings have made a big difference toward achieving balanced budgets without raising taxes. The proposed budget for 2012 once again calls for no tax increases and a spending increase within the inflation rate.
Islip’s fiscal success is also reflected in the town’s debt rating. In January, Fitch Ratings affirmed the town’s AAA rating and concluded the financial outlook is stable.
In economic development too, Nolan has been a leader, partnering with Brookhaven Supervisor Lesko on development around Long Island MacArthur Airport while casting an appropriately wary eye on claims of the Heartland Town Square promoters.
In these difficult times, governing requires more than attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies and fireworks displays. To succeed, leaders cannot be disengaged or complain they are victims. They must, like Nolan, be responsible, disciplined, hardworking and willing to fight every day for clear objectives based on sound principles that put the taxpayers first.