Nassau County legislators and legislative candidates have called for the county to spend American Rescue Plan Act and opioid settlement monies to address needs throughout the county, yet the recently enacted 2024 budget does not include such funds.
Instead of dispersing the money, which combined amounts adding up to approximately $400 million, the county has opted to hold it in its reserve funds. Keeping the funds in the county reserves assists in balancing the county’s budget through the accruing interest, improves the reserve fund and has the potential to better the county’s Moody’s bond rating.
But Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) said it is concerning that the county is focused more on the financial benefits than spending the money on the people who direly need it.
“Every call we get from a family, from somebody struggling with opioids or, god forbid, somebody who’s just lost their child or grandchild – which is what I’ve had a lot of work with lately – what do we say to them?” DeRiggi-Whitton asked. “‘Oh, the opioid money is being used to improve Blakeman’s bond rating?’ It’s like a moral issue.”
The opioid settlement money was achieved through a lawsuit against the main pharmaceutical companies involved in manufacturing, distributing and selling opioids that exacerbated the national opioid epidemic. New York Attorney General Letitia James reached settlements with the companies that exceeded more than $2.6 billion.
The state then allocated the settlement funds to state agencies and local municipalities to mitigate the effects of the opioid crisis.
Nassau County has approximately $70 million from the opioid settlement. Only about $2.5 million has been spent in the last two years, according to DeRiggi-Whitton. She said the county is expecting even more, approximately another $30 million, which can only be used to tackle addiction.
DeRiggi-Whitton is a staunch advocate for addressing the opioid issue exacerbated by the availability of fentanyl in Long Island, pushing for fentanyl test strips throughout the county and hosting Narcan training sessions.
“It’s affected a number of people that are very near and dear to me and I lived through it for years with some of these parents,” DeRiggi-Whitton told Blank Slate Media. “It’s really such a nightmare.”
She said there is an easy first step in taking control of the issue: utilizing the $70 million from the pharmaceutical opioid settlement that is now sitting in the reserves.
DeRiggi-Whitton said what’s clear to her is funding the Nassau University Medical Center, which she said has at least three empty floors. Those floors could be used for opioid treatment, she said.
“We could make that building the center for opioid rehabilitation,” DeRiggi-Whitton said.
She said the funds could also help to pay for treatment for uninsured individuals or for insured individuals who are typically only offered 28 days of paid treatment through their provider. She said three months is more adequate in treating people working through addiction.
She said this plan could also help the hospital, which has faced financial hardship, making the plan a “no-brainer” to DeRiggi-Whitton.
Other county legislators and legislative candidates have advocated for the money to be spent, including District 10 candidate Weihua Yan.
“I think that’s a missed opportunity,” Yan said. “Everyday that we are not putting the money into use, people’s lives will be lost.”
Also found in the county’s reserves are the federal funds for COVID-19 relief.
The American Rescue Plan was a federal $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill distributed to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds can be allocated to COVID-19-related relief, which includes investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
DeRiggi-Whitton said the county is doing financially well at this moment and she advocated for the disbursement of the federal pandemic relief money to small businesses, not-for-profits and even residents.
“A lot of people really suffered during COVID,” DeRiggi-Whitton said. “It would help get them caught up.”
DeRiggi-Whitton said she assisted Sea Cliff in using the federal funds to install sewers through parts of the village. She said this also reimbursed homeowners the $7,500 fee to hook up to the sewer lines.
She said this is the only project in Nassau County she knows of that has used the federal funds.
DeRiggi-Whitton said the county is using the funds for its own benefit, which is not the purpose of those funds.
The county has until the end of 2024 to allocate the federal COVID-19 relief funds, and until the end of 2026 to spend them. If it does not meet those deadlines, the county will be forced to return the money.