By Delia DeRiggi-Whitton
For Nassau County, 2024 is a year of new beginnings – a fact that is immediately evident by the ascension of two new legislative caucus leaders and a total of five new legislators. I was looking forward to a fresh start and greater bipartisan cooperation as we confront the county’s most important issues.
Unfortunately, our first meeting did not go as I hoped it would.
Amidst COVID-19, the federal government allotted funding to help local communities weather the pandemic and recover from the many challenges it created. Nassau County received approximately $385 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and, as of Monday, January 22, still had approximately $299 million left to allocate. By law, ARPA funding must be allocated by the end of this year and spent by the end of 2026 — otherwise, it will be clawed back by the federal government.
Some municipalities have used these resources to fund tax rebates to residents, launch medical bill forgiveness programs, and establish other initiatives that directly aid small businesses and not-for-profit organizations. On the other hand, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman has recently stressed two main ideas: moving more than $222 million into the county’s operating budget and using $10 million to help stage and promote a series of galas and other celebrations for the County’s 125th anniversary. By comparison, he proposed setting aside a relatively small portion of the funding — $15 million — to support various not-for-profit organizations and special districts that deliver ARPA-approved services.
Initially, the Minority Caucus advocated for the inclusion of approximately $12 million for worthwhile agencies in our seven districts. When presented with the $15 million number for the entire county, our hope was to reach a compromise that increased the sum to $19 million, with an agreement to divide the funds equally at $1 million for each of the 19 districts. This approach would have allowed each legislator to assist in arranging for the distribution of resources to the most severely impacted programs and initiatives to help communities fully rebound from the pandemic. Ultimately, the Legislative Majority would not commit to an equitable distribution approach or even a small increase on the allocation.
Naturally, this was a disappointing outcome. However, recent events have made the absence of an equity agreement a real concern.
For the last several years, applications for grant funding in my district — including those for fire departments, public libraries, and more — seem to have been stonewalled by the Blakeman administration. During our ARPA negotiations, implications were made that my district’s grant funding was indeed being held up. The reason? The administration did not approve of my comments in a recent column urging them to expedite the delivery of opioid settlement funds to agencies that deliver life-saving prevention, treatment, and recovery services. Specifically, by arguing that the administration’s approach is “badly out of touch with the needs of our constituents,” it was alleged that I engaged in so-called “personal attacks.”
By fast-tracking approval for $10 million in funding for 125th anniversary celebrations while opioid funding continued to languish on our ledger books, the administration made its priorities clear. Pointing that out is a policy critique, and I stand by my statement today. I am still dismayed that the county held back hundreds of millions of dollars in remaining ARPA and opioid settlement funds for as long as they did to bolster Nassau County’s reserves for the sake of impressing rating agencies and potentially generating interest on the funds.
In my opinion, by acquiescing to the administration’s wishes, Presiding Officer Howard Kopel missed a relatively easy opportunity to start off his tenure in a good-faith, bipartisan manner. Even after hearing directly from dozens of organizations that would have put these resources to such good use, the majority rubber-stamped the administration’s plan and gave every indication that the county executive’s office will have the final say on where this $15 million will be spent. While I hope they will be responsive to the will of the people and each district will receive a fair share, that outcome is now out of the control of the members of the Minority Caucus.
Yes, this was an incredibly disappointing start to the year, but it is just that — the start. I still have optimism that we will do a better job for the people of Nassau County in the months ahead, and that the county will use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give these worthwhile organizations that serve our communities the resources they deserve.
Delia DeRiggi-Whitton is the Nassau County Legislature’s Minority Leader. She was first elected to the Legislature in 2011.