Adam Barsky says he knows his decisions as head of Nassau’s fiscal control board may open him to political attacks.
After spending the better part of three decades in high-level government posts under Democrats and Republicans — sometimes ruffling feathers with his style — he said he is ready for the job.
“You have to have thick skin in this business,” Barsky said. “It’s a contact sport.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in March appointed Barsky, 53, of White Plains, as chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority’s seven-member board, which monitors the county’s finances and approves contracts and the annual budget.
Barsky, who chaired his first NIFA meeting in April, replaced former North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman, a Democrat who resigned to run for Congress.
NIFA’s chairman, while unpaid, is the public face of an oversight board with broad powers — one that in recent years has been criticized for both appeasing and obstructing County Executive Edward Mangano’s measures.
Barsky said he expects to work cooperatively with Mangano, a Republican, but also challenge him when needed. “If I’m in agreement with the county I will go out of my way to support them and make their initiatives happen,” he said in an interview. “If I’m in disagreement with them . . . I will draw a line in the sand if I have to.”
In announcing his choice for the state post, Cuomo said Barsky had “a depth and diversity of experience that is second to none.” It was an acknowledgment of a public service career that started in the Democratic-controlled Town of Babylon in the late 1980s and continued under two Republicans — New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s and Gov. George Pataki in the mid-2000s.
Friends described Barsky, a registered Independence Party member, as hard-charging and blunt. When he served as Babylon Town comptroller, a job he got at age 25, even colleagues who were fans acknowledged that he made enemies.
“He’s very direct. He’s not going to beat around the bush,” said Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, who met Barsky when they were students in 1983 at SUNY Albany, which is now known as the University at Albany. Schaffer was student association president and he made Barsky comptroller.
“He’s not a politician,” added Schaffer, also the Babylon Town supervisor. “He gives you advice based on the numbers, not based on any philosophy or personal agenda.”
Barsky weathered controversy in the 1990s, when a lawsuit alleged that he took cash bribes from a commercial garbage carter seeking a Babylon contract. Barsky was dropped as a defendant, before the suit was dismissed.
The case, Barsky said, was “fabricated,” calling it a political response to changes pushed by Schaffer, who was then in his first stint as supervisor.
He said he expects to face criticism in his new role at NIFA, as previous chairmen have. Kaiman was sometimes knocked for not being tough enough on Mangano while his predecessor, Ronald Stack, was attacked by the administration for blocking certain initiatives.
“If anything, I think it strengthens my ability to handle this role,” Barsky said of enduring the lawsuit allegations.
Barsky was raised in East Islip. His father was a special-education teacher and his mother was an aide for learning-disabled children. He graduated from East Islip High School, then SUNY Albany with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
In 1988, Babylon Supervisor Arthur Pitts, a Democrat, hired Barsky as town comptroller. Tom Melito, who served as deputy town supervisor, and now is an aide to Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, recalled Barsky as “a very strong personality — a bright financial mind.”
He credited Barsky with helping boost the town’s credit rating and creating a new solid-waste district. “When you make change, sometimes you step on people’s toes and they don’t like it,” Melito said of pushback they saw.
In 1992, Jeffrey Morosoff, then Babylon’s town spokesman, said: “Adam was controversial and his style upset some people. He would go over people’s heads to get things done when need be.”
Barsky said his style hasn’t changed much. “There was a lot that I had to prove at the time, and I wanted to accomplish a lot,” he said.
Giuliani hired Barsky in 1994 as assistant director in the city’s Office of Management and Budget and then as chief financial officer of the Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit that helps the city promote business growth.
In 1997, as Barsky worked for the city, six carting firms that had lost work in Babylon filed a lawsuit against the town and its leaders, alleging that it rigged bids, took bribes and forged records in the awarding of a multimillion-dollar commercial waste contract. Barsky was one of 25 defendants.
The carters alleged that Barsky in 1995 took cash bribes during a meeting with BSCCI, a Babylon carting company that also was a defendant in the case. BSCCI later obtained exclusive rights to collect commercial waste in Babylon while a related firm obtained a special, low-interest loan from the town’s Industrial Development Agency, the lawsuit said.
A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the case in 1998, calling the complaint “vague and confusing.” When the plaintiffs refiled, Barsky was no longer a defendant. The case was dismissed in 2001.
“It was a complete political ploy to hurt the people in the town who were running for re-election at the time,” Barsky said.
In 2000, Giuliani appointed Barsky as city budget director, where he managed the country’s largest municipal budget — $40 billion in operating funds and a $50 billion capital plan, larger than some states. Barsky said he helped improve the city’s credit rating, overhauled social service programs and created a system to measure department performance.
“He dedicates an enormous portion of the day to the job he’s in,” said Joseph Lhota, Giuliani’s former deputy mayor who ran as a Republican for mayor in 2013 and is now a senior vice president at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Charles Brecher, research director at the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan city budget watchdog, was a frequent critic of Giuliani’s fiscal policies. Brecher said that while Giuliani used “heavy-handed tactics,” Barsky “was a supporter of the outcome; a team player. I don’t blame him for Giuliani’s tactics.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Barsky worked to relocate administrative office space, get the New York Stock Exchange running again and indemnify the city against potential lawsuits.
Barsky had moved into an apartment in Battery Park City, near the World Trade Center, the week before the attacks. With his building transformed into a staging area for rescue workers, he moved temporarily into the Library Hotel in midtown.
Barsky billed the city for more than $13,000 in October and November 2001, according to a 2003 audit by then city Comptroller William Thompson. Barsky’s hotel bill was among those the city’s Economic Development Corp. was unable to document as “reasonable, justified, and supported with adequate documentation,” the audit said.
The city said Barsky “was required to be close to Ground Zero 24 hours per day” in the weeks after the attack. Barsky said it was a “legitimate expense” because his apartment became a staging area, and he needed to stay in a hotel.
In 2003, Pataki appointed Barsky deputy secretary for finance, housing and public authorities, a post he held for three years. Barsky oversaw the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Long Island Power Authority, the Port Authority and NIFA, which then served in an advisory capacity, until 2011 when the county’s budget deficit rising to more than 1 percent of total spending triggered a period during which the NIFA board controlled the county budget.
Barsky said he worked on a state panel that overhauled management and oversight of public authorities, establishing a separate budget office and inspector general. In a statement, Pataki called Barsky “a consummate professional who is expert in public finance.”
With NIFA, Barsky now has the backing of people who criticized previous chairmen. Former NIFA board member George Marlin, who said Kaiman didn’t challenge Mangano’s fiscal policies strongly enough, has known Barsky since the mid-1990s.
“He has a deep understanding of how numbers really work and the expertise to the get at the root of the problem,” Marlin said.
Barsky said he would pay particular attention to county contracting procedures, which have come under scrutiny in the last year. At his first meeting as chairman, the board passed a resolution calling on the county to hire a commissioner of investigations and a director of procurement compliance to oversee contracts.
Mangano has since announced the hires.
“We need a higher degree of confidence in the process,” Barsky said at the meeting as he supported the resolution that called the county’s reforms “slow and ineffective.”
County legislative Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) criticized Barsky for starting on a “partisan” note, because early this month, Barsky signaled that, at Mangano’s request, NIFA would consider removing some requirements from its own contract disclosure forms that go further than the county’s.
“I don’t have a bent, politically,” Barsky said. “I have a bent on success and making positive change.”