Nassau finances an easy pre-election target

Former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and former Former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and former comptroller Howard Weitzman, left, speaks during a press conference (June 10, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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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 ...

Yesterday, a federal appeals court panel heard arguments on whether Nassau's fiscal control board had authority enough to impose a 2-year-old wage freeze.

Meanwhile, two former county officials seeking re-election to their old posts took after the county's current comptroller, who is promising to release a report Wednesday showing that Nassau ended 2012 in "positive" numbers.

All this came just days after the county attorney threatened to sue the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state control board, because it would not approve more than $100,000 in contracts for two Albany lobbyists.

Such is to be expected during an election season, when candidates use anything that might garner an advantage.

At a news conference Monday, former County Executive Thomas Suozzi and former Comptroller Howard Weitzman, both Democrats, found an easy target in Nassau's finances.

The county budget hasn't been sound in years -- and that includes some of their tenure.

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One of their complaints Monday was that GOP Comptroller George Maragos had yet to close out the county's 2012 budget.

A few hours later, Maragos sent out a release announcing a news conference Wednesday, when -- well before a reporting deadline -- he is slated to release unaudited results of how the county fared last year.

There was a time when NIFA would have been the arbiter here. No matter how any side tried to slice it, NIFA could be relied upon to offer up a dose of reality over political expediency.

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Those times -- thanks to a series of attacks on the authority by the administration of Republican County Executive Edward Mangano -- are almost gone.

NIFA can be good for Nassau's budget, as it was when the authority, at Mangano's request, froze wages for county workers.

The county's police unions, taking the lead for others, filed suit. They won a round when a federal trial judge ruled that NIFA's authority under its enabling legislation had expired.

During Monday's arguments, the two-judge federal appeals panel asked why U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler hadn't left the issue to a state court, since NIFA was created under state law.

The question sets up another potential wrinkle for Nassau residents wondering what's up with county finances.

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Should the wage-freeze case ultimately go to state court, it will get in line behind other anti-NIFA lawsuits.

The other court actions challenging NIFA's authority, however, are coming from Nassau County, rather than its unions.

Last week, County Attorney John Ciampoli threatened to file yet another lawsuit against the control board after NIFA refused to sign off on the contracts for Albany lobbyists. NIFA chairman Ronald Stack said, essentially, that the county couldn't afford the contracts.

But here's the county's continuing conundrum: Nassau wants and needs NIFA to remain strong enough to impose the wage freeze.

But Nassau also wants it weakened enough so the county can spend what it wants rather than what NIFA deems necessary.

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With recent bond-rating downgrades, however, Nassau can't expect to keep doing both.

With Maragos, Weitzman and Suozzi mixing it up Monday, county finances became a more prominent part of the county executive campaign, in which Suozzi faces a Democratic primary from East Hills businessman Adam Haber.

All the office seekers must lay out aggressive plans for fixing the county's finances -- and all of them ought to include a closer partnership with NIFA.

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