Credit agency sums up Nassau's dysfunction

The entrance of Fitch ratings agency. The entrance of Fitch ratings agency. Photo Credit: Getty Images, 2011

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Sometimes a look through other eyes can be useful, as with Fitch Ratings, the Wall Street agency, which last week dropped Nassau County's short-term bond rating a notch and switched the county's long-term debt outlook from stable to negative.

This is not good. But it's far from Nassau's worst, which came a decade ago when bond-rating agencies -- and remember Fitch is one of three -- hammered the county's rating to a few notches above junk.

Nonetheless, elected officials who are supposed to be addressing the worsening fiscal crisis in one of the nation's wealthiest counties ought to be embarrassed by Fitch's action.

There is still time to act. Even with the drop, Nassau's short-term debt quality remains high. So does its long-term debt quality, although that rests toward the bottom of the high-quality ranking categories.

What remains to be seen -- and what's key to climbing rather than falling in the ratings -- is whether Nassau can act quickly and decisively enough to push the negative outlooks assigned by Fitch and, earlier, by Moody's, another bond-rating agency, to positive.

Over six pages, Fitch misses little in detailing its reasoning for the downgrade, or analysts' continuing concerns about Nassau's ability to stabilize its own finances, even under the eye of a state fiscal control board.

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County Executive Edward Mangano's run-ins with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the control board, and Democratic county lawmakers blocking Mangano's efforts to borrow merit mention under the heading "WEAK INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONSHIPS."

It's one reason, Fitch warns -- right there, in black and white -- that Nassau's rating could plummet further: "Absent improvement . . . Fitch believes the ability to implement programs to improve fiscal stability will continue to be impaired."

The response from Mangano, a Republican, and Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead), head of the legislature's minority caucus on Friday? They blamed each other for the downgrade.

But then, George Maragos, the Republican county comptroller, decided to weigh in, too. He blamed Democrats and NIFA.

The report notes that Nassau could nearly deplete its reserves, which would trigger a downgrade; that spending on salaries, wages and fees was significantly higher than budgeted from January to April; that Nassau is estimating a $20-million budget gap for this year, which officials expect to fill from labor savings; and that the county has become dependent on short-term borrowing to fund operations.

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The agency also puts to paper what Nassau officials have been saying privately for some time: that Mangano's proposal to have a private company manage the county's wastewater system is alive, although Fitch said it "views negatively" the county's plans to use about $115 million from that proposed transaction to fill future budget holes.

"The county expects to continue to pursue NIFA's approval," Fitch notes, "without which additional gap-closing measures will be needed in 2013 and 2014."

It's June, with half the fiscal year almost gone, and the county has taken no significant action on closing a projected deficit. That's on top of Nassau likely closing the books on last year's budget with a deficit, and as-yet unfilled holes in 2013 and 2014.

As Fitch confirms, it's a crisis. When will officials attack that, rather than each other?

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