Counties' borrowing plan should be last resort

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano (March 19, 2012)

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano (March 19, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Surprise!

The county executives of Nassau and Suffolk are seeking permission to borrow up to $500 million through 2016 to prop up their faltering budgets.

Why?

On Wednesday, their aides spoke vaguely about dealing with expenses related to superstorm Sandy.

That's not necessarily a bad idea -- but the legislation floating around Albany apparently would allow both counties to borrow for non-Sandy-related items too.

It amounts to a quest for quick cash by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, and Edward Mangano, the Republican running Nassau.

While families, businesses and a host of municipalities have had no choice other than to permanently adapt to a post-recession world, the move by both counties looks like a way to protect county leadership from having to make some of the same hard decisions.

Yes, Suffolk and Nassau have fewer public employees than they used to, and they've moved to get extra revenue from red light cameras and one-shot land sales.

But requesting a blank check ought to be a last resort -- and it shouldn't come in the last days of the state legislative session, when there will be little time for review.

Wall Street bond rating agencies recently downgraded the credit of both counties. In Suffolk, they cited the inability of elected officials to make "meaningful spending reductions." In Nassau, they noted disputes between Mangano's administration, Democratic lawmakers and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state control board overseeing county finances.

On Wednesday, representatives of both counties hailed the borrowing attempt as a bipartisan, regional approach to finances that would help post-Sandy recovery.

Not quite.

According to the measure floating around in Albany, neither county would be limited to borrowing for Sandy-related expenses.

For Nassau, that likely leaves the door open to bonding hundreds of millions of dollars owed to property owners who successfully appealed their property tax assessments.

The measure also represents the third time the Mangano administration has attempted an end run around the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state control board overseeing Nassau's finances.

For Suffolk, a new line of credit likely would come in handy politically for funding salary increases in negotiated police union contracts that amounted to save now, pay a whole lot more later.

There are legitimate reasons to borrow, and Sandy-related expenses are among them.

But there's more each county can do before turning to the extreme measure of seeking a change in state law that would allow them to borrow through the state Dormitory Authority.

For Suffolk and the state's other distressed counties that do not have control boards, gaining the ability to use the Dormitory Authority to refinance some debt might be a worthy idea.

Nassau benefitted, twice, from a similar restructuring through NIFA.

But shouldn't more effective stewardship from the region's executive and legislative leaders come first?