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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Can Nassau County break its deficit habit?

Adam Barsky, chairman of The Nassau County Interim

Adam Barsky, chairman of The Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, left, with other board members at a meeting in Uniondale Thursday evening, Jan. 5, 2017. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Someday, there’ll be no reason to write about Nassau and deficits and a state control board with initials rhyming with “knife-ah” that — for 17 years — has been charged with keeping an eye on county finances.

Until that day arrives, however, there’s this:

Looks like Nassau is making progress in handling its finances, according to a report issued this week by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.

But don’t break out the party cake just yet.

Because the county’s still going to end 2017 with a deficit.

The good news? That deficit is not going to be as high as NIFA initially expected. The bad news? The county’s still spending more money than it brings in.

If Nassau’s out-of-whack spending continues, NIFA predicts that the deficit could balloon to almost $190 million by 2020, the year NIFA would celebrate — ?!?!? — its 20th anniversary.

That’s nuts.

But if the county pares the deficit to less than 1 percent of its roughly $3 billion budget, the most onerous of NIFA’s controls would end.

The wild card will be leadership.

County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican who has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption-related charges, is not expected to seek re-election — although he hasn’t made his plans known.

Nonetheless, Mangano, who will prepare the county’s 2018 budget — which by charter is voted upon in October, before the upcoming elections — already is coming under NIFA pressure to reduce expenses or find more revenue.

In its midyear review of Nassau’s finances, NIFA praised — and that’s rare — the county for reducing its projected deficit from $100 million to $53.5 million. Part of that reduction came from the county’s use of rainy day funds to pay operating expenses, including court judgments and contributions to the retirement system.

In addition to producing a yearly budget, Nassau is required to submit to NIFA a multiyear plan, which projects how the county intends to handle expenses and revenues from 2018 through 2020. That plan is riddled with what the NIFA report called “recycled” initiatives — such as selling county land and privititzing the county’s sewer system — and pumped-up revenue forecasts.

If Nassau doesn’t strengthen its plan, NIFA is threatening to unilaterally impose cuts next year — which is also when Mangano’s expected successor will take the reins.

Administration officials and county Comptroller George Maragos — a Democratic candidate for county executive — dispute NIFA’s deficit numbers for 2017.

They say the gap is smaller than NIFA says it is.

OK. But the differences still don’t meet the mark for Nassau to ditch its control board.

And, really, shouldn’t that be the goal — and well before NIFA hits double decades?

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