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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Analysts raise serious questions about Nassau union deals

Jon Kaiman is shown at a Nassau Interim

Jon Kaiman is shown at a Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) meeting in Uniondale on Oct. 9, 2013. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Nassau's independent office of legislative budget review takes no prisoners in its unflinching analysis of four union contracts that the county's control board will consider later this month.

The bottom line?

The contracts, in the short term, are significantly more expensive than advertised, and Nassau doesn't have enough in existing or promised revenue streams to fund them, the analysts say.

The report is refreshing in that it spares Nassau residents more tennis-match, back-and-forth, he-said, she-said characterizations of what the pacts involve.

It says, flat out and backed up with numbers, that Nassau likely will be challenged -- financially and managerially -- in coping with new costs that would escalate quickly over a condensed period of time, before leveling out when cheaper, yet-to-be-hired public workers come on board.

The analysis in its final pages -- in Attachment E -- also lists a series of questions the office sent to Jon Kaiman, NIFA's chairman, who helped broker the deals.

Maurice Chalmers, the budget office's director, sought clarification on issues including whether the county legislature needed to approve lifting a now three-year wage freeze and whether NIFA was satisfied that Nassau would have enough dedicated revenue to cover the cost of the deals.

NIFA advised Chalmers' office, however, that the questions should first be posed to the county, the comptroller and the legislature -- even though the comptroller and lawmakers were not parties to the contract negotiations.

"We are still looking at a number of issues of concern of our own, while also looking at the issues raised in the county report," Kaiman said Monday night.

Chalmers is asking the right questions. And they should be answered before the union contracts -- which the county legislature passed Monday night -- pass final muster.

Is it NIFA's position that Nassau can use so called "attrition savings" to offset costs?

This one's important, because, as the legislative analysis made clear, Nassau traditionally uses money it saves when workers leave the county to plug holes in the budget.

If those savings are streamed solely to fund the contracts, what revenue would take their place?

There's also a question about promises of a so-called "safety valve," should the county, in 2016 or 2017, find itself in deeper fiscal distress. "In our initial review of the [agreements] we did not see this provision," the report states. "Why was this important provision, potentially assisting the county in maintaining its economic viability in the event of another economic downturn, excluded from the final draft?"

Why, indeed?

But the budget review report questions whether the structure of the police officer contract constitutes "reinstating previously frozen wages?" NIFA has said the freeze saved $230 million.

NIFA, wisely, is not expected to act on the contracts until the end of the month -- after which the State Legislature is expected to vote on new speed cameras that Nassau is counting on to provide a steady new stream of revenue.

Chalmers in his analysis notes that camera revenue won't be enough.

Such issues deserve answers. The last thing Nassau residents, and county workers, need are agreements rushed now -- to be found flawed later.

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