The finances of Nassau County are in such chaos that it's a wonder anyone would want to take ownership of the mess. But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stepped right into it Wednesday by replacing the chairman and filling two vacancies on the Nassau Interim Finance Authority board amid County Executive Edward Mangano's complaints that the fiscal oversight board was being too tough on him.
The timing is terrible for such an upheaval. It's the middle of the 2014 budget process. NIFA is critical of the county's proposed settlement with its police union because it doesn't include the concessions the county needs to bring its books into line. This comes against the backdrop of an upcoming countywide election that pits Republican incumbent Mangano against Democrat Thomas Suozzi, the former county executive.
Cuomo had plenty of time to make these changes and take full control of the board; one seat was vacant for 13 months, another for nine. Outgoing NIFA chairman Ronald Stack told the Cuomo administration in early January that he wanted to leave. It wasn't until last week that the governor's staff responded to the pleas of the state's top Republican figures to help Mangano by eliminating the county executive's critics.
Early yesterday, a Mangano spokeswoman said, "County Executive Mangano looks forward to working with the board to clean up Tom Suozzi's mess."
A latter statement from Mangano was less partisan. But that initial petty remark leaves little doubt the replacement of Stack and the addition of two other members was made in response to Mangano's desperation for NIFA's approval of his budget and new police contract before the Nov. 5 election.
Stack, a municipal finance expert who worked on the 1975 bailout of New York City, has been on the NIFA board since it was formed in 2000 to prevent Nassau from going bankrupt. Stack has vast institutional knowledge of the county's financial problems and their historical context. Heading NIFA is a thankless job, but Stack's unpaid, vigilant and dedicated service on the board still deserves a big thank-you from county residents.
The new chairman is Jon Kaiman, a Democrat who is resigning as North Hempstead town supervisor Friday to work as Long Island's Sandy recovery czar. Kaiman was hand-picked for both jobs by Cuomo.
Kaiman now has to ensure that NIFA stays above partisan politics. The risk that NIFA -- actually, that all independent state boards -- will be politicized is troubling enough. But now there is also the concern that Kaiman, whose talents are deep and many, will be spread too thin.
The first anniversary of the superstorm is nearing amid discontent on the Island that the state is not fully engaged in the arduous task of making sure reimbursements by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other U.S. agencies are paid quickly and fairly to homeowners, businesses and municipal governments.
Kaiman's challenge now is to work closely with Cuomo -- indeed taking a paycheck from him as Sandy czar -- while demonstrating the independence required by his fiduciary duty to the public and the holders of Nassau County bonds. Mangano complains that NIFA, not his policies, is unfairly keeping the county under the wage freeze and in a fiscal control period. That's not a good argument for re-election. So the governor, whose antipathy toward Suozzi is well known, is coming to his rescue.
As for rescuing Nassau taxpayers? That now rides on the integrity of Kaiman and the six other members of the NIFA board.