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Voters in NY suburb to decide on $400M arena plan

UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) - An election official reported low voter turnout early Monday in a suburban New York county where residents were deciding whether to back a $400 million bond issue to construct a new hockey arena and minor league ballpark.

"Abysmally low," is how Nassau County Board of Elections Commissioner William Biamonte described turnout for the unusual mid-summer election. He said approximately 20,000 voters had cast ballots in the first several hours after polls opened at 6 a.m.; voters have until 9 p.m. to cast their ballots.

The commissioner, a Democrat, said there were some minor problems with some workers arriving late to polling places, but no major issues.

Nassau County residents, who pay some of the highest property taxes in the country, are deciding whether to support a $400 million bond issue to replace the 39-year-old Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The project also includes a minor league baseball park and a possible track and field facility.

The county executive and others consider the vote 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 said he will have to consider his options, including selling or moving to a new city if voters reject Monday's referendum.

County Executive Edward Mangano, who is struggling to close a 2011 budget deficit estimated at more than $100 million, points to studies that claim the project will create over 1,500 construction jobs and over 3,000 permanent jobs.

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.

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.

Mangano says the average cost to taxpayers would be as little as $14 per year; others estimate the average could be four times that amount.

Even if voters approve the proposal, there are still major hurdles. The county legislature must sign off on the borrowing, as does the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state watchdog agency that earlier this year declared a fiscal emergency in Nassau, citing a soaring county budget deficit.