UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Voters in a suburban New York community already paying some of the highest property taxes in the country overwhelmingly rejected a referendum Monday to borrow $400 million for the construction of a new hockey arena and ballpark.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, the referendum failed 56 percent to 43 percent, according to unofficial returns from the Nassau County Board of Elections.
Supporters of the referendum called it a last-ditch effort to keep the New York Islanders playing in the Nassau Coliseum. The team's lease expires in 2015 and the hockey team's owner, Charles Wang, has hinted he may have to move off the team off Long Island unless a new facility is built to replace the 39-year-old building.
He made no predictions about the future in brief comments before hockey fans and supporters at a gathering at the coliseum after the vote. "I'm disappointed, I'm heartbroken," the millionaire founder of software maker Computer Associates said. He promised the team would remain on Long Island until the lease expires.
Proponents, including labor unions, tourism officials and many business groups, argued the construction project would bring jobs and spark economic growth in the community just east of New York City.
Voters were clearly concerned, however, with the prospect of higher taxes.
"If it was so good why didn't the owner pay for it himself?" said Mary Beth Molloy after voting no.
Anita Abbenda said she voted no "because the taxes are high enough."
Turnout was extremely low with only about 100,000 voters expected to cast ballots; an election official said a typical November election attracts about three times that number.
Republican County Executive Edward Mangano insisted the new coliseum project would generate income to overcome any initial taxpayer investment, but he was clearly rebuffed.
He also expressed disappointment with the outcome, but insisted he was not quitting on the idea of developing the 77-acre site, one of the most valuable undeveloped parcels of property in the county. "This just opens up new doors," he said.
The cost to run the referendum was estimated to be $2 million, which Wang said he would pay, but only if voters approve the project.
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, though the county has no say over school district spending, which is decided in each local municipality.