Nassau's nonunion employee raises ill-timed

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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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 ...

The raises given recently to more than 50 upper-level, nonunion employees in Nassau County constitute the first real test for Nassau Interim Finance Authority chairman Jon Kaiman.

In handing out the raises, Nassau's elected officials are relying on a two-year-old opinion from the county attorney that the wage freeze imposed on union employees by NIFA, at County Executive Edward Mangano's request, does not apply to the county's appointed, nonunion ones.

That's the same kind of hairsplitting that Nassau has engaged NIFA in from the time the county argued that the board had no authority to take over county finances.

There was a lawsuit over that assertion. And NIFA won.

There were dust-ups over NIFA's authority to approve contracts before -- rather than after -- they were awarded.

And fights over whether NIFA should essentially become a party to union-management labor negotiations rather than waiting to analyze and approve or deny proposed contracts.

The raises -- all of which are more than cost-of-living increases, in a county with continuing, serious financial stresses -- are, at best, ill-timed.

At worst, they're an act of political deafness, the kind of government disconnect that drives residents, overburdened with property taxes, justifiably wild.

And there might be more to come beyond those included in a Newsday story last week. According to multiple sources, some employees working for Republicans in the county legislature are slated for increases, too.

A spokesman for the delegation did not return a reporter's call for comment.

Kaiman and the NIFA board -- to Kaiman's credit -- sent over a strongly worded letter to Mangano and Comptroller George Maragos requesting that the raises be rescinded.

In an interview, Kaiman said that even if the NIFA statute -- as Nassau contends -- was drawn in a way that allowed raises for nonunion employees during a wage freeze, it constituted a loophole that should be closed.

Mangano said Monday that the increases he handed out -- remember, please, that the comptroller, legislature, clerk and district attorney are independently elected officials responsible for their own budgets -- saved residents money by going to employees who were promoted or who took on additional duties from positions Mangano eliminated.

He said he had explained his rationale to Kaiman during a telephone call Monday. Kaiman acknowledged talking to the county executive but said he had not talked to Nassau's other elected officials, including Maragos and District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who also handed out raises.

"There is no need to go from manager to manager looking for an explanation of this person or who got what and why," Kaiman said. "We are looking at this purely from a policy-slash-legal perspective."

Kaiman stressed that NIFA, while expressing concern over the raises, had not decided where it would go next in ensuring that Nassau held to the wage freeze -- the authority's most potent weapon, which has saved cash-strapped Nassau more than $100 million since it was imposed three years ago.

"We are looking into our options," he said.

And well NIFA should, because -- despite the two-year-old opinion from the county attorney -- the authority's intent on a wage freeze seems clear. If wages and step increases are frozen for union employees, the same should apply for nonunion employees, too.

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