Judge's ruling makes NIFA's powers clear

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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

So, yes, a Supreme Court judge ruled Wednesday that a state control board can impose wage freezes.

And, yes, Nassau's employee unions likely will appeal, maybe even all the way back up to federal court, if necessary.

But let's pause for a second to consider all of what Justice Arthur Diamond's 40-page decision had to say.

For the first time ever, a judge managed to clarify NIFA's job and its power.

That's no small thing in a county in which elected officials and employee unions for years have been raising questions about what the state control board could do.

Even some members of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which imposed the freeze in March 2011, had doubts because of the way the authority's 1999 enabling legislation was drafted, and later revised.

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Diamond's decision manages to cut through all of that in a way that should refocus the parties on what is happening in Nassau and why.

For one, the county has a state control board.

Everyone knows that, but Diamond reminds Nassau residents why:

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"The entire purpose of the NIFA act was to place the county on sound financial ground over the long term," according to the decision.

"In passing the NIFA act, the [State] Legislature concluded that the fiscal difficulties in the county were 'contrary to the public interest . . . and seriously threatened to cause a decline in the general prosperity and economic welfare of inhabitants of the county and the people of this state.' "

NIFA's job is not to hurt Nassau -- it's to "prevent regression towards insolvency," the decision said.

And the control board, as the decision makes clear, has power to do just that, including declaring fiscal emergencies and freezing wages and other compensation for county workers.

And, yes, that includes police officer wages that had been awarded through binding arbitration, according to the decision.

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But contrary to a sea of signs that union members held up outside the hotel hosting NIFA's Monday meeting, that doesn't necessarily make NIFA the unions' enemy.

In approving the measure three years ago, the decision notes, NIFA included this in its long list of justifications:

"The freeze would help reduce the number of inevitable layoffs of county personnel, which would be a better overall result for employees whose jobs were spared, and for residents for whom a larger workforce would remain available to deliver essential services."

Nassau's financial crisis is actually the latest in a series of crises, dating back to the 1980s. And the county workforce is significantly smaller as a result.

In a way, the current crop of union employees are the last ones standing, many of them in departments with increased workloads.

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On Monday, NIFA imposed the wage freeze for another year. That means the crisis continues -- even as union leaders and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano put forth proposed union agreements that they say trim costs and include savings.

How long could NIFA exercise power over Nassau's finances if it deemed it necessary?

Diamond had an answer for that: potentially as long as NIFA, which twice has refinanced Nassau debt, has outstanding bonds.

For now, that's until 2025.

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