Lawmakers call for probe after Hempstead denies Nassau funding

John Asbury for Newsday

December 14, 2020

Originally published in Newsday on December 14, 2020.

Long Island elected officials on Monday called on the state comptroller’s office to review $70 million in federal COVID-19 funding that Hempstead Town used for payroll.

Lawmakers argue the town should have used a bulk of the money to cover the tens of millions in costs that Nassau County has incurred during the pandemic.

"These federal funds were designed and intended to fund essential county workers and support those actively working to stop spread," County Executive Laura Curran said at a news conference. "It’s not enough for the town to run a PR campaign for all the ways they’re spending the money and quietly pocket almost half of it at the last minute before the clock ticks out."

Curran, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), and State Sens. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown), Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), John Brooks (D-Seaford) and Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck) joined the call on Monday for a probe.

Hempstead Town Board members allocated $74 million last week, including $43 million for its sanitation department and $17 million for general services departments such as bay constables, that they deemed public health expenses under recent Treasury guidance. The town also approved about $1 million for villages and fire departments across town.

Hempstead was the only town in the country to receive federal funding from the U.S. Treasury based on its population of 800,000, and it received more aid than Nassau County’s $103 million. Suffolk County received $257 million in federal funding. The town had until Dec. 30 to allocate the money.

A spokesperson with the comptroller's office said the request would be reviewed, but wouldn’t comment further. The state has been conducting a separate audit since last year on the town’s finances.

A town spokesman accused Curran of seeking funding to plug holes in her budget while the town has used funding for such items as personal protective equipment for small businesses.

"Ironically, she and her cronies are embarking on an absurd attack on Hempstead Town for the municipality's model COVID-19 relief spending," Hempstead spokesman Greg Blower said. "Curran, on the other hand, has shrouded her $100 million CARES Act spending in secrecy."

Curran said the county used its funding to pay for operations, such as the department of health, contact tracers, police and firefighters and the county morgue. She said she requested $50 million from town Supervisor Don Clavin last summer to reimburse the county for police response in the town during the pandemic, but the town did not provide any aid.

Rice said Clavin wanted to keep the money in town control while the county bears the brunt of the costs.

"Nassau County is not back to normal, and Nassau finances will not be normal unless Clavin shares this money that should have gone to Nassau," she said.

Town officials plan to spend the remaining $25 million in federal funds to cover renovations and improvements at 82 town buildings, including 400 touchless bathrooms.

"Residents of Hempstead should ask the supervisor why he is spending millions to upgrade toilets in Town Hall while ignoring the first responders who need his help," Curran said.