Suing NIFA is no solution for Nassau

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) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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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 ...

Nassau's new lawsuit against its financial control board is both ill-advised and dangerous to the county's fiscal health.

The county claims that the Nassau Interim Finance Authority has blocked initiatives, such as creative borrowing to cover multimillions of dollars in successful property tax appeal refunds, necessary to balance the county's books.

But too often NIFA has been the lone voice of fiscal sanity in a county that for decades has favored temporary half-fixes to making hard or politically unpopular decisions on real ones.

Nassau is hardly the only county in New York State having problems. But a control board -- even one saddled, as NIFA is, with the flawed legislation that created it -- gives officials significant advantages.

County Executive Edward Mangano himself asked NIFA to exercise one of its more potent powers: freezing salary and longevity increases for county workers. Nassau's also benefited from NIFA's refinancing of significant county debt.

Without NIFA, the county's finances, precarious as they are, would be even worse. Besides, NIFA isn't Nassau's real problem. The disintegration of the will to govern by the county's elected officials is.

The county has yet to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds owed property owners who successfully appealed their assessments. NIFA approved -- reluctantly -- a plan that would allow Nassau to borrow to make the payments.

But because of interparty bickering between Mangano and legislative Democrats, there's been no borrowing. The way to fix this would be simple: Come to an agreement. But no.

Democrats refused to bond as a way to mitigate Republican plans to decimate their caucus by combining Democratic districts in a new redistricting plan. But Republicans are not blameless in this either: Some Democratic lawmakers continue to pledge that they will not approve borrowing without enough backup for them to determine whether the payout is justified.

That should have been easy enough to provide. But no.

And so it has come to this: Nassau, which is in a cash crunch, spending money to go to court to get NIFA out of its way so that the Mangano administration can go through with more than one convoluted plan to avoid oversight from either Democrats or NIFA.

This is nuts, especially in an election year when Mangano and lawmakers Republican and Democrat alike are up for re-election.

Mangano and Republicans are trying to blame NIFA and Democrats for everything from losing the Islanders to a series of bond-rating decreases under Mangano's watch.

But Democrats, by continuing to be overly combative rather than responsibly cooperative, cannot -- and should not -- escape their passive-aggressive role in the county's deteriorating fortunes.

And the court system? Even as Nassau attempts to use it to fight NIFA, others are using it, successfully, to fight Nassau.

Over the past few weeks alone:

One judge recently ordered potential $500 a day fines against the county because Nassau -- in a 29-month-old case -- had not provided discovery materials; another ordered Mangano to appoint seven volunteers to oversee the troubled Nassau County jail within 90 days.

Meanwhile, New York's top court recently refused to hear the county's arguments against using electronic voting machines. Nassau was the only county in the state to argue against their use. And just last week came word that the district attorney had empaneled a grand jury to look into, among other things, how Nassau awarded tens of millions of dollars in contracts for Sandy-related cleanup work.

Nassau versus NIFA? Republicans versus Democrats? Those aren't the battles to watch. It's the one that Nassau's elected officials, through their own intransigence, have launched against the people they are supposed to be serving.

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