Nassau Comptroller George Maragos, who is campaigning for county executive as a Democrat, issued a financial report Monday with more twists than the Transfagarasan, a Romanian roadway featuring 55 miles of hairpin turns, along with a pass by Count Dracula’s castle.
Maragos’ news release said Nassau has a surplus — and a deficit.
To be fair, Nassau relies on two ways of determining year-end surpluses and deficits.
The first — which Maragos used to calculate the surplus, and which is allowable under the county charter — simply subtracts expenses from revenue. Which sounds simple, except that borrowed money is allowed to be included as revenue.
The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county’s fiscal control board, insists that Nassau do the same calculation, but in a far different way — by not counting borrowed money as revenues.
Under the NIFA model, as Maragos points out, the county’s surplus vanishes and is replaced by a $72.9 million deficit.
For years, Nassau’s elected officials, counting borrowed money as revenue, have claimed surpluses.
They’re right, under one formula.
But dead wrong, where it really counts.
As long as Nassau continues to rack up multimillion-dollar deficits, it will continue to have a financial control board. And NIFA’s been looking over county finances in some fashion since 2000.
But there’s no fixing a disguised problem. And tagging deficits as surpluses masks the issue, and obfuscates the goal — which should be to rid Nassau, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, of a control board.
Even as he masks the deficit, Maragos does a good job dissecting what’s wrong with the budget.
In 2016, according to his as-yet-to-be-independentally-audited figures, the county’s recurring revenues were $82.2 million lower than budgeted. The impact was lessened by recurring expenses that came in under budget.
To bolster revenues, the county relied for revenues not just on borrowing — $105.8 million that NIFA had approved — but on $72 million in one-shots too. Nassau also had to rob Peter a bit to pay Paul, by transferring money from some county funds to cover expenses in others.
But residents need not understand municipal budgeting to see where county finances stand. Look to the canceled bus routes, and the annual scramble to fund youth and other services; look also to the higher fees.
Those tell the story of Nassau’s fiscal picture better than any spreadsheet.
Again, to be fair, as Maragos points out, Nassau likely will end 2016 in better condition than it ended 2015 — but not by much, and certainly not by enough for county finances to be back on fiscally solid ground.
“Failure to diagnose is what leads to failure to treat,” Chris Wright, a NIFA board member, wrote in an email response to a query about Maragos’ report.
Pretzel-like roads — like the one in Romania — may be challenging to the best of drivers. But year after year of pretzel-like assertions on budgets from Nassau’s elected officials is a poor substitute for a straight-line take on the condition of county finances.