Stop playing petty political games with county resources


For Nassau County, 2024 is a year of new beginnings — a fact that is evidenced by the ascension of two new legislative caucus leaders and 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.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government allotted funding to help local communities weather the crisis and recover from the many challenges it created. The county received roughly $385 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, and, as of Jan. 22, still had around $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 the money for tax rebates for residents, to launch medical bill forgiveness programs or to establish other initiatives that directly aid small businesses and nonprofit organizations. On the other hand, County Executive Bruce Blakeman has recently stressed two 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 of the county’s 125th anniversary. By comparison, Blakeman proposed setting aside a relatively small portion of the funding — $15 million — to support various nonprofits and special districts that deliver ARPA-approved services.

Initially, the minority caucus advocated for the inclusion of roughly $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 total to $19 million, with an agreement to divide the funds equally, with $1 million for each of the 19 districts. That would have allowed each legislator to help arrange for the distribution of resources to the most severely impacted programs and initiatives to help communities fully rebound from the pandemic.

Ultimately, the majority would not commit to an equitable distribution approach, or even a small increase of the allocation.

Naturally, this was a disappointing outcome. And recent events have made the absence of an equity agreement a real concern.

For the past several years, applications for grant funding in my district — for fire departments, public libraries, and more — seem to have been stonewalled by the Blakeman administration. During our ARPA negotiations, implications were made that the funding was indeed being held up. The reason? The administration didn’t approve of my comments in a recent column, urging it to expedite the delivery of opioid settlement funds to agencies that deliver life-saving prevention, treatment and recovery services.

Specifically, when I argued that the administration’s approach is “badly out of touch with the needs of our constituents,” it was alleged that I engaged in “personal attacks.”

By fast-tracking approval of $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 it did to bolster its 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, the Legislature’s 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 those 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 the office 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’s just that — the start. I’m still optimistic 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 worthwhile organizations that serve our communities the resources they deserve.

Delia DeRiggi-Whitton is the County Legislature’s new minority leader, and represents the 11th District.