Nassau should not borrow for district items
The late Peter Schmitt, who presided over the Nassau County Legislature, had it right: If the county is having financial problems, lawmakers shouldn't be borrowing for boutique projects that benefit their individual districts.
With that, Schmitt, who died in October, put a stop to borrowing for so-called "member items." But now the practice is back -- with county lawmakers bonding more than $6 million this year for capital projects, including patrol cars for Freeport and firefighter gear in Wantagh.
Most of the money went to villages, and school, fire or library districts -- which already have authority to borrow or tax their residents for such projects.
The latest borrowing came for communities represented by Democratic lawmakers -- as part of a negotiation that ended a stalemate between Democrats and Republicans, including County Executive Edward Mangano, over borrowing to pay overdue property tax refunds to residents.
Republicans, who hold the legislative majority, had approved borrowing for their own pet projects earlier.
"They got theirs already," Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said of the GOP. "We're just playing catch up here."
What about "us," as in Nassau County residents who will foot the bill, plus interest, for items most never will see, much less use.
The items were passed as part of the overall bonding package during a legislative meeting -- a move that, conveniently, obscured from public view what was happening.
This is not what a cash-strapped municipality ought to be doing. And, no, it does not matter that the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state control board overseeing county finances, voted to approve the borrowing package on Tuesday.
This is an election year, for Mangano and the legislature.
And the issue of borrowing already has been injected as part of the campaign -- by former County Executive Thomas Suozzi and Adam Haber, who are in a primary battle for the Democratic nomination to challenge Mangano.
Borrowing? It's not as sexy a topic as, say, property taxes. But in Nassau, the issue is crucial.
In 2000, Frank Zarb, a Wall Street executive assigned by then-Gov. George Pataki to investigate Nassau's fiscal crisis, reported that largely because of its borrow-and-spend practices, the county faced a deficit of $117 million that year.
As NIFA board members pointed out during a meeting Tuesday, the county -- more than a decade later -- still is unable to balance its budget.
These days, Nassau has no choice but to borrow for emergency items, such as superstorm Sandy rebuilding that includes fixes to the dilapidated Bay Park sewage plant.
Why would lawmakers, willingly, add spend-and-borrow pork projects to the pile?