Editorial: Best deal for Nassau County will spread the chips around

At the poker table that is Nassau County's At the poker table that is Nassau County's finances, the important thing is that the game not break up. If any faction suffers too much, or wins too big, everyone loses. Including the taxpayer. Photo Credit: Martin Kozlowski

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At the poker game that is Nassau County's finances, the important thing is that nobody leaves the table. If any faction suffers too much or wins too big, everyone loses, taxpayers included.

The stakes have never been higher. A federal district court judge just nixed a wage freeze, declaring that the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the control board overseeing the county's books, had no authority to impose it. If that ruling, which surprised all sides in the statutory interpretation it made, holds up on appeal, the county will owe more than $100 million in back pay to its police and other unions. Even with NIFA's wage freeze, Nassau's revenue and expenses are tilted toward deficits. And all of that pressure is being visited on a county carrying $3 billion in debt and operating on revenues crushed by the Great Recession and Sandy.

So the county's future now rests on this poker game. The uncertainty of the wage-freeze litigation makes the outcome scary for all. The Fitch rating service has said it will downgrade the county's bond ratings if the wage freeze goes.

Any big win will be short-lived. Only a solution that gives every player some of what he seeks is workable.

Police Benevolent Association President Jimmy Carver is in a better position than before, but his members may think his hand stronger than it is. The chances of County Executive Edward Mangano getting a deal done are no better, because any bargain that lifts the wage freeze for PBA members has to get through opposition from NIFA and votes from Democratic legislators.

Here's the outline of a deal in the works: NIFA lifts the wage freeze on the PBA, which allows newer cops to keep advancing toward full pay of $108,000 per year and allows all members annual increases. In return, the PBA negotiates a slower rate of pay increases and institutes health care contributions for future hires -- and gives police brass more management flexibility. The PBA would also drop the wage-freeze lawsuit, which presents risks to both the cops and the county.

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But it won't work unless the savings are solid, and no one wants to show their cards.

What stands in the way is the approval of NIFA, and the votes of at least three legislative Democrats, needed to make the supermajority required to borrow for the termination pay for retiring cops.

NIFA, which had been reluctant to play its hand in this game, seems to finally have come to the table. It doesn't love the numbers, because so much of the savings comes from retiring cops who would leave regardless, and it doesn't think as many will go as the PBA promises. Democratic legislative leader Kevan Abrahams and his party chair, Jay Jacobs, are balking because this is their last stack of chips in the gamble to get better legislative redistricting. The Republican gerrymandered map is to be voted on tomorrow.

Mangano could trade some election district improvements Democrats want for permission to borrow, but GOP party chairman Joseph Mondello refuses to let him.

NIFA is confident it can win on appeal so it isn't so fast to cut a deal. But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needs the county's finances to stabilize and the effectiveness of the control board to maintain credibility.

There are the players at the table and the backers behind them. For an honest deal to be made, everyone has to play. If anyone walks away from the table, the county and the taxpayers get a little closer to going bust.

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