NIFA's tight grip on Nassau's fiscal reins

NIFA Chairman Ronald A. Stack, along with the NIFA Chairman Ronald A. Stack, along with the majority of the board, rejected Nassau County's sewage privatization plan at their meeting Thursday in Uniondale. (May 17, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Danielle Finkelstein

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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 ...

So Nassau County has a financial control board after all.

In an extraordinary session -- and despite reports of pressure from the governor's office -- the Nassau Interim Finance Authority began asserting itself like a control board last week.

It killed, quickly, Nassau's request to borrow more than $20 million to refurbish the county's money-losing Aquatic Center.

And while one member suggested that perhaps Nassau could come back with a leaner renovation plan, others pointed out that a county in fiscal crisis shouldn't even consider so extravagant an expense.

The board then quickly moved on to the big one: Nassau's request to enter into a contract with Morgan Stanley to broker a deal to find an investor who would front Nassau almost a billion dollars for the privilege of overseeing a private operator to run the county's wastewater system.

County Executive Edward Mangano's office never forwarded a copy of the contract to the control board.

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So the board -- which months ago asked state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to investigate the county's handling of contracts, many of which moved to NIFA with the speed of mud -- took matters into its own hands.

NIFA staff went to the county legislature's website, downloaded a copy of the contract approved by lawmakers last week, considered the contract's merits and shot it down.

The action stunned some Republican officials, who had expected the contract -- which they said was still being worked on, despite the legislature's approval -- to be pulled from the meeting agenda.

And here's where pressure from the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo supposedly comes in: According to a report from my colleague, Dan Janison, multiple sources say that Cuomo's top aide, Larry Schwartz, more than once carried messages to NIFA members to relax its vise on the Mangano administration's stated plans for escaping financial doom.

On Friday, Cuomo's office said it would have no comment. And NIFA board members weren't talking about it either.

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But after Thursday's meeting, more than one board member said he wouldn't vote to approve any proposal to hand over Nassau's sewers to a private operator because the move amounted to a backdoor lump-sum loan to the cash-starved county.

But the board didn't stop there. George Marlin, NIFA's most outspoken member, openly questioned assertions about Nassau's 2011 budget made by Mangano's administration -- at times with the backing of Peter Schmitt, the legislature's presiding officer, and George Maragos, the county's comptroller.

"After NIFA declared a control period, my colleague and I were vilified by county officials," Marlin said.

The county spent millions of dollars to fight the NIFA takeover in court, saying that Mangano's 2011 budget was balanced.

It turns out that NIFA was right, according to an unaudited report by Maragos, which projects that the county will close the books on 2011 by June 30 miserably cash-short and more than $160 million in the red because Nassau was off in its expense and revenue projections.

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That's why -- as Marlin pointed out -- Mangano and fellow legislative Republicans are desperate to borrow. "They wish to borrow to fill the deficit hole," Marlin said.

If they don't, Nassau will run out of cash, beginning in June. And then there's the prospect of a lowered bond rating. In short, the county's still in crisis. Which is why NIFA is needed now more than ever.

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