Nassau needs a strong NIFA to oversee it

Christopher Wright, right, addresses a meeting of the

Christopher Wright, right, addresses a meeting of the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) while Chairman Ronald Stack, center, listens during a meeting in Uniondale. (March 22, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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The Nassau Interim Finance Authority has come out swinging against a proposal that would allow Nassau County to ignore its objections to multimillion-dollar borrowing.

Ronald Stack, the board's chairman, hit 'em high with comments in Monday's Wall Street Journal, saying that a bill pending before the state Senate to allow Nassau to borrow without NIFA's approval would weaken NIFA and damage the authority of current and future fiscal control boards.

"This legislation is a travesty," Stack added in an interview. "This bill would significantly impair NIFA's ability to achieve the fiscal balance necessary for residents in Nassau County."

George Marlin, a NIFA board director, hit 'em again with a criticism in Monday's New York Post, blasting Nassau's elected officials for, among other things, sneaking up to Albany rather than settling down to make difficult but necessary moves to fix the county's budget.

"If they were to be successful with this legislation, they would destroy the integrity and purpose of control boards that have been maintained for almost four decades," Marlin said in an interview. "I have an obligation to speak out."

NIFA's very public opposition stands in stark contrast to the administration of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's continued silence on the measure.

The bill, which seemed mysteriously to come out of the ether last week, has no state Senate sponsor. But its lineage is unmistakable. It went to the rules committee, chaired by Mangano's fellow Nassau Republican, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Skelos -- along with former state assemblyman and current state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli -- authored legislation that created NIFA.

What does the comptroller think? "We are concerned with the proposal because it weakens the mechanism that was created to help restore the county's fiscal health," said Brian Butry, a spokesman for DiNapoli.

"It was this type of borrowing that comptrollers warned Nassau County and other municipalities about in the past, and what really got Nassau County in trouble previously," he said.

The comptroller's office also agreed with Stack and Marlin that the gambit to purposefully ignore NIFA could have state and nationwide implications. "This could set a precedent that could undermine the very purpose of a control board," Butry said.

As a county legislator, Mangano voted for NIFA; as county executive, he relies on NIFA's power to freeze salaries as one sure way to slow Nassau's rising expenses.

Still, at almost every step along the way, the Mangano administration has worked to thwart NIFA. First, came a lawsuit challenging the board's authority to assume control; then, among other things, came foot-dragging on handing over contracts on so grand a scale NIFA asked DiNapoli's office to investigate.

Among the late contracts was one with a private company to manage the county's bus service -- just weeks before the company was to assume control -- and several for expensive legal work that already had been completed.

And now the Mangano administration wants permission from Albany to continue on its way. The county's actions demonstrate why it -- like other fiscally fragile municipalities unwilling or unable to manage a crisis -- needs a fully functional control board.