Only a few months ago, Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos appeared willing to directly take on the county's tangled budgetary practices.
But with a report released this week -- and especially in a news release that went along with it -- Maragos appeared to be backsliding.
How many times is the comptroller, the county's chief financial officer, going to label a budget deficit as a surplus?
Monday's release from the department did, with the laughable headline:
"Maragos: County to End 2012 with a Small Unaudited $10.7M Surplus."
Dig deeper into the release and the accompanying financial report, and some truth about the county's finances begins to emerge.
For one, there is no surplus.
There is, in fact, a deficit by the only measure that counts: recurring revenues vs. recurring expenses.
And at $191.2 million, that deficit is twice as large as it was last year.
So where, some Nassau residents may be wondering, did that "surplus" come from?
From borrowing to pay operating expenses, because the county -- again -- didn't have enough in the budget to make ends meet. And from Nassau's having to dig $16.2 million -- more than anticipated -- from its rainy day fund.
But Nassau didn't spend all of the money it borrowed. Maragos' release repackaged the leftover money into a "small unaudited . . . budget surplus."
Maragos, to be fair, knows the county has serious fiscal problems. But his release is topsy-turvy -- leaving what residents should know at the bottom, far away from the surplus statement at the top.
"The financial fundamentals of the county have shown deterioration over 2013, caused by the decrease in sales tax revenues and the increased borrowings," the release states.
And buried in the last sentence comes what should have been the headline: "Reducing borrowing and finding other sources of income should be a priority . . . to improve future results."
Was that so hard?
The report does note that, along with the drop in sales tax receipts, anticipated department revenues are down.
The report makes no mention of the canceled school-zone speed-camera program, which, for a short time last year, produced tens of millions of dollars in new revenue for Nassau. However, it does mention that revenues from park fees are down because of lower park attendance.
For almost two decades now, juggling Nassau's finances has not been easy. Structural deficits have continued even as the county shed its public hospital, which was spun off as a public-benefit corporation two county executives ago, and the county bus and sewer systems, which under County Executive Edward Mangano were transferred to private managers.
What that means is Nassau residents need a comptroller strong enough to say when things aren't going right, and call a deficit a deficit.