Nassau's debt: Sorting out Suozzi's, Mangano's claims about county borrowing

Candidates for Nassau County Executive, Tom Suozzi and Candidates for Nassau County Executive, Tom Suozzi and Edward Mangano, speak in Old Westbury during a debate sponsored by the Nassau County VIllage Officials Association. (Oct. 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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The candidates for Nassau County executive accuse each other of responsibility for dramatic spikes in debt during their terms, but actual long-term borrowing has varied little between administrations.

From the end of 2009, when Democrat Thomas Suozzi left office, through 2012, three years into Republican Edward Mangano's current term, Nassau's long-term bond obligations dropped by a fraction of a percentage point, from $3.451 billion to $3.448 billion, audited county financial statements and bond rating reports show.

The county comptroller's office estimates that those outstanding liabilities -- which include general borrowings for capital projects as well as ones from separate authorities for sewer district and tobacco settlement revenues -- will rise to $3.595 billion by year's end, which would represent a 4.1 percent increase since Mangano took office in January 2010.

Suozzi served from 2002 to 2009, and in his last four years in office, including the start of the recession that continued into Mangano's term, long-term debt increased by 7 percent, from $3.223 billion to $3.451 billion.

But during that time, Nassau decreased both the percentage of its budget used for debt service payments and the ratio of debt to its tax base, both of which a half-dozen municipal finance experts interviewed say are better indicators of fiscal health. Those numbers have crept back up under Mangano but remain in the same range.

"The reality, when you look below the numbers, is that neither man has been particularly irresponsible," said Robert Donahue, managing director of Municipal Market Advisors, a Concord, Mass., research firm that tracks municipal debt, including Nassau's. "The debt is high, but it's always been high."

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Suozzi is running to reclaim the job he lost to Mangano by 386 votes in 2009. While he acknowledges that the long-term debt figures detailed in Nassau's audited financial statements are accurate, he says they don't tell the whole story.

He said many Mangano borrowing attempts were thwarted, including a $400 million proposal for a new, publicly funded Nassau Coliseum that voters soundly rejected in 2011.

But Suozzi's key criticism is that the amount of property tax refunds owed to residents has spiked under Mangano, from $164 million in 2009 to an estimated $279 million this year. Suozzi says the figure should be added to Mangano's debt total. If so, long-term debt plus tax refund payments due could reach $3.875 billion by the end of 2013, a 7 percent increase from the end of Suozzi's term.

"I got rid of the backlog," Suozzi said in an interview, noting that outstanding property tax refunds dropped from $400 million in 2001 -- Republican County Executive Thomas Gulotta's last year in office -- to $164 million in 2009. "Now Ed Mangano's building it back up."

Mangano disputes that the backlog is actual debt. His deputy county executive for finance, Tim Sullivan, said the tax refund figures "are only estimates of prospective liability. . . . No debt has been issued.

"You can't have it both ways: looking at outstanding bonds that have already been issued, and estimating prospective debt that has not been issued," Sullivan argued, emphasizing that the administration considers the audited financial statements the only credible source on county debt. "They show we've held the line on debt."

Daniel L. Smith, an assistant professor of public budgeting and financial management at New York University's graduate school for public service, said neither man is wrong.

"What is 'relevant' municipal debt is in the eye of the beholder," Smith said. But he noted that many local governments, because of rising pension costs, include all long-term liabilities in calculations to better reflect their actual obligations.

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Debt size not a surprise

While Nassau has more debt than similar-sized municipalities (Suffolk, with a similar budget and tax base, carries about $1.4 billion), it's not a surprise, said the municipal finance experts. They pointed to the county's large tax base, which has kept its percentage of total debt -- including short-term cash-flow borrowing obligations -- to less than 2 percent of the full assessed value of Nassau properties across both Suozzi's and Mangano's terms.

"What scholars and rating agencies look at is how much debt is issued relative to the taxable base," said Sharon N. Kioko, an assistant professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School for public policy. "The county has a really strong tax base, so even if the total debt increases, if that percentage remains constant, that's what you base your assessment on."

Suozzi started his debt claims after winning the Democratic primary in September. At a news conference, he criticized Mangano as a "compulsive borrower," who ran up $2 billion in new borrowing (this included short-term debt taken out against anticipated revenues, and didn't factor debt that was simultaneously paid down). "We are going to cut up his credit card," Suozzi said.

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Mangano called Suozzi's initial debt figures inaccurate, because they are culled from various sources at different points in time. He accused Suozzi of increasing debt by $400 million (or 13 percent) over his eight years, which is true if only long-term bonded obligations are considered and not the disputed tax refund liabilities.

If those tax refunds are included, plus some short-term debt that Gulotta left outstanding, Suozzi argues that he actually decreased debt by a small percentage -- $3.674 billion to $3.615 billion -- while in office. Without the short-term notes, however, long-term debt totals still increased by $167 million during Suozzi's eight years.

Suozzi has since appeared to de-emphasize debt as a central campaign issue. His initial estimates of Mangano's borrowing included not only outstanding property-tax liabilities, but also a state program to spread out increases in the county's pension bill and short-term cash flow notes borrowed against pending county revenues.

According to the 2012 audited financial report, Nassau issued short-term borrowing in anticipation of tax revenues of between $120 million and $150 million from 2003 to 2009 under Suozzi. In his first three years, Mangano borrowed more than $230 million annually in these "tax anticipation notes." It reached a high of $257.7 million in 2012.

Don Boyd, a senior research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany, called Nassau's recent reliance on short-term debt "pretty heavy, meaning they are at risk from any disruptions in the markets, or if their own problems make it hard to access the markets."

While long-term debt is the standard measure, Boyd said short-term borrowing to cover operating costs "is troubling because it means they are not living within their means on an ongoing basis and are pushing bills off to the future."

Borrowing for cash-flow purposes, Donahue added, "generally is a sign of potential stress within a municipality."

Referring to the risk that rates will rise when the county must refinance the short-term bonds, he said: "It's good that they're taking advantage of lower rates, but it also means that if rates go up, they expose themselves to rate volatility."

Rather than long- and short-term debt totals, experts said a better measure of Nassau's fiscal health during Suozzi's and Mangano's terms is the amount spent annually paying down debt. The ratio weighing debt service payments against total expenditures has climbed slightly under Mangano, but held between 11.8 percent and 12.8 percent since 2001, which many see as a reasonable total.

"A rule of thumb," said Smith, is that a debt service burden of "15-plus percent is high."

Resonating with voters

Political experts say the notion of playing up debt in the current election has its risks: It doesn't resonate with voters.

Michael Dawidziak, a political analyst in Bohemia who works primarily with Republicans, said Suozzi miscalculated by stressing debt as his opening salvo, particularly when colleagues in Washington were fighting over the debt ceiling.

"I just don't think raising debt resonates the way raising taxes does," Dawidziak said.

Recently, Suozzi has focused more on Mangano's handling of the assessment system, which he blames for rising school district taxes, even as Mangano touts his freeze on county general fund taxes.

"If [Suozzi] was going to misstep with a message, it was better to do it early because he can recalibrate," Dawidziak said.

Both candidates aired early television ads focusing on debt, and Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said the problem with leading a campaign with debt issues is that Nassau voters are all too familiar with financial woes.

"It's white noise," Sheinkopf said. "Fiscal problems have always been an issue in the county, and talking about them really doesn't matter."

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