Nassau lacks time, excuses on budget crisis

Nassau Comptroller George Maragos. (March 28, 2011) Nassau Comptroller George Maragos. (March 28, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Nassau County ended last year with a more-than-$50 million hole in its budget, the county comptroller announced Friday.

To fill that hole, the county used more than half of its $90.9 million in reserves -- bringing the rainy-day fund down to less than county policy says it should be.

But there's more.

Nassau, which is more than halfway through the 2012 budget year, now faces the prospect of ending this year with a $45-million hole.

There's not enough money left in the reserve fund to cover it. And -- should Democrats remain firm -- there won't be any way for Nassau do more credit-card-like borrowing either.

Overall, Comptroller George Maragos characterized the news on county finances as "mixed," in part, he said, because the county is doing less borrowing. Still, the negatives stand out more than the few positives.

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In short, Nassau is running out of time. And out of excuses for not attacking the root of its continuing budget crisis.

Last week, County Executive Edward Mangano's office announced it had received 13 replies from companies interested in privatizing Nassau's sewer and wastewater authority for at least $700 million.

This is the latest -- and largest -- in more than a decade of fiscal gimmickry that's allowed Nassau to keep on spending more than it collects in revenue.

This time around, the county is looking to offload management of its wastewater system in return for a shot of big money -- in a move similar to its offloading of the Nassau University Medical Center a decade ago for a fraction of the revenue.

Maragos on Friday fell in line with Republican assertions that Democrats are to blame for the 2011 deficit. He also pointed a finger at the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the control board overseeing county finances.

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That was odd -- because NIFA can't consider Mangano's request to borrow millions of dollars to cover the cost of successful property tax challenges until the legislature acts.

And the legislature hasn't been able to act because Democrats won't support the borrowing -- until Republicans back off on a plan to redistrict at least three Democrats out of their seats.

But the singling out of Democrats or NIFA by Maragos and Mangano as the cause of the problem is misleading, too.

The major reason Nassau fell short was because of reduced state aid and the county's bad decision to count chickens -- revenue from red-light cameras, which weren't approved until the end of the legislative session -- before they hatched.

The anticipated deficit in 2012 isn't Democrats' or NIFA's fault either. Most of that comes from higher-than-budget overtime for police and correction officers and the county's budgeted, but failed, attempt to save money from union concessions.

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Why not fix the structural fiscal problems instead? That's what Maragos also suggests in his report. "The administration should assume that neither NIFA nor the legislative minority will support the necessary bonding," he said, to pay for property tax refunds.

And he goes on to recommend that Mangano find enough recurring cuts and new recurring revenue to close the holes and replenish Nassau's rainy-day fund. Maragos went on to suggest a back-to-basics approach that includes reorganizing Nassau's government to focus on core functions.Mangano -- who fought the NIFA takeover last year, asserting that his 2011 budget was balanced -- is expected to release a revised financial plan for 2012 next week.

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