Now that a court has decisively rejected County Executive Edward Mangano's attempt to stop a state board from taking control of Nassau's finances, it's time for him to end the political gamesmanship and legal fog and start focusing on a fiscal strategy.
Unfortunately, the county's response to Monday's ruling by State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Diamond is to continue attacking the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, further solidifying the case that the oversight panel was right to vote for a control period in January.
Nassau County meets the threshold to trigger a NIFA control period: a 1 percent operating deficit, which this year is $27 million. That's why the judge dismissed Mangano's argument that the deficit be determined in February 2012, after it occurred. The judge said such reasoning "not only makes no sense, it contravenes the very purpose" of NIFA.
Diamond repeatedly noted that Mangano's budget seeks to borrow 100 percent for property tax assessment refunds, the very practice that sank the county a decade ago and led to the creation of NIFA in 2000. NIFA opposes using long-term debt to cover operating expenses and the county had been steadily moving to a pay-as-you-go system, until Mangano reversed course.
Now it's time for Mangano to reverse course in dealing with NIFA. After denying for three months NIFA's finding of a $120-million deficit, Mangano must present the control board with an immediate plan to shore up the 2011 budget and, most important, put in place a strategic plan to close the shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars that looms for 2012. That's when union salaries jump, the spike in pension contributions hits, and state aid slows down.
Instead, the county's Republican leadership repeated the worn argument that NIFA is usurping the authority of elected officials and will raise taxes. What it does mean is that Mangano and the GOP-controlled legislature have to get real about managing in tough times. And it would help if Nassau's Democrats take the political bombast down a few notches.
Diamond noted that "the court is not insensitive" to Mangano's claims that in the previous administration of Thomas Suozzi, NIFA was often more flexible with the budgeting practices it allowed. Still, the judge found that NIFA's decision to take control was justified by the facts and its reasoning.
What the judge gets across in his lengthy ruling is what finally needed to be said: There is little confidence that Mangano and his advisers have the experience and skills to respond to Nassau's financial plight. NIFA is a gift horse to Mangano. He should stop complaining and put it to work.