With less than a week before scheduled votes by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority and the Nassau County Legislature on new contracts with police officers and most of the county's other unionized workers, things were falling apart last night. That's actually good news, as there is no way county legislators and NIFA directors could honestly vote on whether to lift Nassau County's wage freeze and accept new deals with its unions without more facts, and the time necessary to understand them. Getting and assessing the facts will take weeks, and could even take months.
There was never a reason to let this process hurtle through the dark like a runaway locomotive simply because no one wanted to slow down enough to shine some light on the situation, yet that's been happening for months.
The process must be slowed. These questions have to be answered:
How can NIFA waive its right to impose further freezes until 2017, as the new contracts demand? That power was granted by the State Legislature. Dealing it away may be illegal. And neutering NIFA's ultimate weapon may displease lenders and financial ratings agencies that regard the freeze as the ultimate guarantee of Nassau's ability to repay loans.
Will the county's speed cameras be approved? The deals to lift the freeze are based largely on prospective revenues from cameras in school zones. The cameras haven't been approved by the state, as required, and revenue from such cameras will decline as speeders slow down.
With a budget deficit this year projected at more than $120 million, how can the county commit the revenue to these contracts from those speed cameras, along with all growth in sales and mortgage tax revenues over the next few years? Wouldn't it make more sense to use the projected new revenue to stop the annual deficits that forced NIFA to declare a control period and wage freeze in the first place?
Is the agreement between the county and the unions that new hires will be part of Tier 6, the cheaper pension plan passed in 2012, legally airtight? The deals under consideration are actually extensions of old contracts rather than actual new agreements. The way Tier 6 was created in Albany, new employees hired under contracts that predate the creation of the new tier are supposed to spend their careers in the old tier. Is the county, which has a pitiful batting average on winning litigation, sure this part of the deal is certain?
How much will unfreezing wages cost? How much will concessions on pensions, health care and pay of future hires save? When will those savings kick in? And how much money saved from the retirements of high-paid workers and the hiring of lower-paid ones is already being counted on in the county's budget and multiyear plan?
And why, when NIFA gives the county the upper hand in negotiations, are Nassau's leaders continuing their pattern of generous raises and benefits for police officers that it may not be able to afford?
Taxpayers may deserve better deals. They definitely deserve better answers about the ones under consideration. And the frantic scrambling to get the deals approved as fast as possible on the part of the unions and the county executive is more evidence of how important it is to slow down and take the full measure of these proposals.