Residents in Nassau County, who pay some of the highest property taxes in America, are being asked to approve a plan to borrow $400 million to construct a new hockey arena and minor league ballpark.
The midsummer referendum is billed by supporters as a last-ditch effort to keep the NHL's New York Islanders from relocating when the team's lease expires in 2015.
Islanders owner Charles Wang, who made his fortune as the founder of Long Island software giant Computer Associates, says he is not issuing any ultimatums but would have to explore other options — including selling or moving to a new city — if voters reject Monday's referendum.
"We are at a crossroads at the coliseum site," Wang told business leaders this week. He said he bought the team 11 years ago and has lost about $240 million playing in a 39-year-old dilapidated arena where the average attendance of 11,059 was the lowest in the 30-team league last season. The building's capacity for hockey is just over 16,000.
He contends uncertainty over the team's future makes it difficult to attract quality free agent players and claims that NHL players and officials voted the coliseum ice the worst in the league last season. The Islanders finished with 30 wins, the second-fewest in the NHL.
"Nassau County needs a swift kick in the butt," said Wang. "We need to grow by saving the jobs we have. We have seen too many businesses that have left here."
The county is already struggling to close a $100 million-plus 2011 budget deficit,
Wang tried to privately develop the property about eight years ago, envisioning an expansive complex of office buildings, apartments and retail stores. That proposal, called the Lighthouse Project, failed because of community opposition.
Now, he is backing a publicly financed plan. County officials envision a new hockey arena, a minor-league baseball park, as well as a possible track and field facility. Decisions about developing the rest of the 77-acre site, one of the most valuable remaining parcels in the densely populated suburb, will be made later, county officials say.
Nassau residents last year paid an average property tax bill of $11,500, nearly the highest in the country. The county portion of that tab is 16.4 percent. The rest goes to finance schools, although the county has no say over school district spending, which is decided in each local municipality.
Those tax bills are sure to be on the minds of voters Monday.
Tony Puccio, a Garden City resident, said he supports a new coliseum and doesn't want the Islanders to leave, but plans to vote no.
"I think that it's too much on the taxpayers to have to bear the burden of the bond and the payment of the interest on the bond," he said. "I just think that if it's such a good deal that the owner of the Islanders should spend his own money for it, with maybe some help from the county."
Edward O'Connor, of Stewart Manor, said he would probably vote yes.
"I'm betwixt and between," O'Connor said. "I'm concerned with the taxes, but on the other hand if they can get a new coliseum and it would bring in more than just the hockey games, it would probably be good for the county."
Even if voters approve the proposal, there are still major hurdles. The county legislature must sign off on the borrowing, as does a state fiscal watchdog, which earlier this year declared a fiscal emergency in Nassau, citing a soaring county budget deficit.
The six-member Nassau Interim Finance Authority is not taking a formal position on the coliseum deal until after the vote, but members said earlier this month that borrowing $400 million would actually cost the county $800 million over 30 years when interest payments are included. It estimated county residents would face a nearly 4 percent property tax increase, or about $58 a year, over 30 years to fund the project.