You Don’t Know Jack: Long Beach City Manager Schnirman Eyes Future of Nassau

Jack Schnirman
Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman points out the window of his office.

From his fifth floor office with a stunning view of the Atlantic, Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman was just pointing out how the brand new, $42-million tropical hardwood boardwalk came in under budget and ahead of time, when John Mirando, his public works commissioner, entered with an important weather update.

The forecast was for one to three inches of snow overnight, not enough to shut the city down, but just enough to create hazardous driving conditions for the morning commute. Schnirman had to think about his residents and the budget. It was the first week of January with many storms yet to come. They agreed to monitor the situation and consult later that evening.

“It is a 24-hour job,” Schnirman told the Press. The 39-year-old has been city manager since January 2012. He admits he wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about the weather.

Pulling the city’s credit rating out of the basement is one thing—it was one step above junk bond status when he took over—but pulling the city back from the abyss is another. Nature is much crueler than any Wall Street analyst. When Superstorm Sandy swept in right before Halloween of 2012 Schnirman and his team had hunkered down in the same office. They watched the swelling bay meet the rising ocean right in front of the municipal building. The current was so strong it almost knocked over the police commissioner who was trying to enter. Almost two feet of water flooded the first floor.

They spent a long night planning for daybreak. They knew they had to call in the National Guard to patrol the streets by sunup because so many residents had ignored the mandatory evacuation order and remained at the mercy of the elements. As Schnirman prepared a team to conduct reconnaissance around the city at 3 a.m., the waters had receded but the wind was still strong, battering the wood barricading the office windows. Schnirman said they assumed they would find dozens, if not hundreds, of casualties.

But the city was lucky. None of its residents had died in Sandy. But when dawn came, Long Beach looked like it had been hit by a blizzard of sand. It marked the beginning of a long road back.

“People’s homes and belongings were destroyed. People needed help,” said Schnirman. But he wasn’t phased by the dire conditions.

“All those simulations I did in grad school about disaster scenarios, they really meant something,” said Schnirman, who got his master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “I actually felt more prepared than I would have expected.”

He said his coursework in Cambridge was remarkably helpful.

“In a crisis situation, you want to give people order, protection and direction,” he said. “You want to establish a regular rhythm of communication and keep people up to date on what’s going on. Tell them everything you know. Be as candid as you can. Be present for people.”

And so they got to work and began to rebuild. Today, he and the all-Democratic city council tout the new boardwalk as a symbol of Long Beach’s resiliency. The new boardwalk has concrete undergirding, hurricane straps for added protection and 20-foot-deep pilings to hold it all up. Sustainability was always the goal.

He was getting his feet wet in more ways than one.

The Brink

“Five years ago I walked in the doors of Long Beach, and we were on the brink of bankruptcy,” said Schnirman. He inherited a worse situation from the previous administration than he thought. “They were hiding stuff from Wall Street and from the residents.”

On Dec. 20, 2011, shortly before he took over, Moody’s had downgraded the city’s credit rating five levels from A1 to Baa3.

“Now we have had eight consecutive credit-positive actions,” Schnirman said.

First, he had to get a handle on how bad the fiscal situation was. The previous administration under Republican leadership had been essentially over-budgeting for revenue and under-budgeting for expenses, and every year the gap just grew. To right the ship, Schnirman had to make tough choices.

“The hardest thing was I had to shrink the workforce,” he said. “We had to negotiate labor concessions. We had to put in a temporary surcharge on the tax bill to pay the previous administration’s deficit off.”

He wondered if he would pay the price for his actions at the ballot box in 2013, but the City Council that had hired him was re-elected “probably by the largest margin ever in Long Beach,” Schnirman asserted. “So, at the same time that we were making the difficult decisions to get our finances under control, Nassau County was avoiding all those difficult decisions and slipping further and further into the abyss. Then Superstorm Sandy hits and the city was completely devastated.”

The City by the Sea lay in ruins. But it doesn’t look at all like that today.

“Not everything is rebuilt yet. There are still tons of projects in progress,” said Schnirman. “The things that have been rebuilt have been rebuilt much stronger, much smarter and safer. That’s been our motto: stronger, smarter and safer.

“It’s a goal that the city council set for this city,” he continued. “We decided we wanted to be a model of resiliency. When you have one chance to rebuild, you have to do it the right way.”

Before he became Long Beach city manager, Schnirman, who was born at Central General Hospital in Plainview, had spent time as Brookhaven’s chief deputy supervisor, where he learned something about stopping the culture of corruption that had given the town the name “Crookhaven.” He’s proud of what he’s accomplished working in municipal government.

“Folks in Long Beach very much appreciate the tremendous progress we’ve made in the last four years since Sandy, the last five years of my administration,” said Schnirman.

Next Stop, Mineola?

And now his name has come up on a short list of four Democrats reportedly vying to replace Edward Mangano as Nassau County executive. The others are County Comptroller George Maragos, a Republican turned Democrat; Nassau Legis. Laura Curran (D-Baldwin); and Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove). Schnirman hasn’t formally announced, nor would he say when—or if—he plans to do so. But he has hired Kim Devlin, who was Tom Suozzi’s gubernatorial campaign manager and the former Nassau County executive’s advisor on Suozzi’s recent successful congressional race. If money could talk, Schnirman has also raised almost $200,000 for his exploratory committee, Nassau Forward.

“We’re building a movement,” Schnirman explained. “People are so frustrated about the corruption, by the dysfunction, by the lack of progress.”

The big question is not whether he’s running but whether what he’s learned as Long Beach city manager can work in the county executive’s office in Mineola.

“The simplest answer” that he could give, said Schnirman, is: “You’re either competent, or you’re not; you’re either corrupt or you’re not; you either believe in efficient government that brings everybody to the table or you don’t.”

He says his experience helping the city rebuild after Sandy while balancing its budget is also motivating him to look at making a difference in Nassau County.

“It makes you angry when you hear that at the same time we were doing this work, this all-encompassing effort to clean things up and restore our city and help people, folks in the county were looking at it as an opportunity to line their pockets,” he exclaimed, his normally calm demeanor actually becoming irate. “That’s just wrong. That’s not what government is supposed to be about. It’s just so extraordinarily offensive.”

Right now, Schnirman says he’s interested in having “a real conversation” about the problems facing the county and the priorities for fixing them. For 16 years, the county has been under the control of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority because of its outstanding debt.

“There’s no magical solution for turning it around quickly,” said Schnirman. “The priorities that I hear from people—and that I share—are: taking care of people, educating people, transportation, housing, infrastructure, economic development. These are the key ingredients to restoring our county to prominence.

“There’s not a huge chorus out there calling for draconian cuts in services, or calling for dramatic tax hikes,” Schnirman continued. “It took many years to cause these problems, and those problems are not going to be solved overnight.”

One thing Schnirman wants to do is get a definitive understanding of Nassau’s dire fiscal situation, calling the budget deficit “a moving target.”

“For years the comptroller told us that the county was facing surpluses, and now for whatever his reasons, he’s become more critical,” Schnirman told the Press. “At the end of the day, the numbers are the numbers, and the county has tried to use a lot of phony accounting tricks and not actually use generally accepted accounting principles to paper over their problems.”

Muddying up the picture is that County Executive Ed Mangano is currently under federal indictment on corruption charges. His wife Linda is also under indictment. Schnirman harbors no ill will toward the incumbent but he wishes he’d step down.

“I’ve always found him to be a personable and friendly person,” he said. “On a personal level I wish him and his family well.”

But when Mangano’s other co-defendant, former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, said he’d resign so he could work on his legal defense, Schnirman issued a statement that “it is clear that Ed Mangano must do the same immediately and allow the Nassau County Legislature to appoint an independent professional to finish his term as county executive.”

Mangano has so far rebuffed the effort and carried out his duties, which Schnirman says is unacceptable.

“The county is facing serious fiscal issues that require full attention,” Schnirman said. “Former Supervisor Venditto said very clearly that he couldn’t focus on doing the task at hand in Oyster Bay because his trial requires his full attention, and yet we hear it’s business as usual in the county. You know, business as usual needs to change.

“Business as usual isn’t good enough anymore,” he continued. “We deserve better. We need reform. We need to move things forward.”

Nassau’s Future

Not surprisingly, Schnirman says that someone with professional management skills would be best suited to run the county.

“I worked my heart out to get our city on the right track,” said Schnirman. “There’s always more work to do, and I’m committed to making sure that I’m part of that work for years to come. Whether I’m here in Long Beach or in the county, I want to make sure that that work continues.”

He and his wife, Joan, an attorney who works for a foster care agency, met in New York City when he was living in Brooklyn. They have a 14-month-old daughter named Sage. Someday he hopes Sage will be able to swim in a cleaned up Reynolds Channel, go to the Nassau Hub to see a show or even catch a hockey game.

“Preferably to see the Islanders play—and I say that as a lifelong Islanders fan who is absolutely infuriated by the leadership failures that took place in allowing our beloved Islanders to leave,” said Schnirman, momentarily glaring. “Only the county government can look at us regionally and bring everybody together to make the things happen that need to happen.”

He’s not keen on Mangano’s repeated attempts to sell the county’s sewer system.

“Like a lot of people I have skepticism about that,” he said. “The concern is that it’s a short-term windfall and it’s a prescription for long-term rate hikes.”

He holds out hope that the Bay Park sewage treatment plan in East Rockaway will turn into a fully modern, resilient facility that stops polluting Reynolds Channel forever more. Schnirman can’t do as much about that situation as he’d like, but under his administration the beach on the Atlantic has gotten high marks for its turn-around. Last summer USA Today declared Long Beach one of the top 10 beaches in the country.

“We had record beach attendance,” said Schnirman proudly. This June the new boardwalk will host Long Island Pride, which used to host its LGBT parade in Huntington. “We’re always on the lookout for new fun events for our residents and visitors. Long Beach is really on the move!”

And soon, perhaps, its current city manager may be making a move, too.