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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: In Long Beach, big separation payments were practice, not backed by policy

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman is shown in

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman is shown in this photo taken on Nov. 15, 2018. Credit: Danielle Silverman

For at least a quarter century, Long Beach has been giving away the store.

That much is clear from a draft audit by the state comptroller's office — leaked recently to the news media — showing the city ignored its own policy, governing code, and contracts to give overly generous payouts for unused vacation and sick time to departing workers.

The audit — remember, it's a draft and we've yet to see the city's response — does not detail how many former employees received a 100 percent payout for unused time — instead of the code-specified 30 percent.

But it does single out a few, including Jack Schnirman, the former city manager who is now Nassau County comptroller.

On Friday, Schnirman gave Long Beach a check for the more than $50,000 that he was overpaid when the city gave him a 100 percent payout on his unused time.

City Council members, as well they should, are threatening to seek reimbursement from others cited in the draft audit as well.

Still, even in draft stage, the audit raises serious questions about Long Beach governance — past, present and future.

Were overpayments reserved for a favored few?

Or did they extend to most?

And if so, how many former Long Beach employees have been overpaid since 1994, when an earlier state audit asked city officials to pay attention to the matter?

It's really hard, here, to shake the image of Oprah, holding forth in Long Beach City Hall, "YOU get that payout! YOU get that payout!"

No wonder the city's finances have been in shambles for so long.

The brouhaha over payouts, predictably (this is Long Beach, after all) has spawned a cascade of political gamesmanship, with Republicans and Democrats weighing in.

Long Beach residents deserved more than that.

Because even in draft form, the audit makes one thing perfectly clear: for some 25 years, and under the administrations of multiple political parties, the city has been poorly managed.

And that's an understatement.

At some point, ignoring policy, code and contracts became the norm.

Then it became past practice.

Past practice then morphed into justification for continuing to ignore policy, code and contracts.

Which has cost Long Beach, which continues to spend more than it collects, untold millions of dollars it could not afford.

The city has yet to make its formal response, which would be taken into account and included in the final-audit-to-come from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office.

Still, the draft includes plentiful fodder for Long Beach officials — and candidates for City Council — to consider.

For one, when asked by auditors about how Long Beach calculated payments, employees acknowledged relying on past practice, but could produce no resolution or record of City Council action changing existing policy, code or individual employment contracts,

A few months ago, a separate report from another third party — the state Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments — pointed out some Byzantine practices as well.

Long Beach, for example, uses paper records for employee time and attendance, which later is put into an electronic payroll record.

Last week, Anissa Moore, the council's new president, said the city would try to recoup overpayments to 10 employees included in the draft audit.

Will the city try to go back even further?

Could officials do that, even if they wanted to?

Schnirman said he relied on the city to calculate his accrued time, which meant the job fell to his subordinates.

According to a Newsday report, Schnirman also did not sign his termination pay agreements, which asked him to certify the reported time and money owed as correct.

Last week, Schnirman said in a statement he would voluntarily return the overpayment, saying in a later interview, "I have stepped forward, and immediately in response to the comptroller's office, and done the right thing and I will leave it there."

Long Beach will have to go further, however, even as investigations into the payouts by Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District continue.

Ultimately, there will be some determination about whether what happened was, or was not, criminal.

Meanwhile, if past practice effectively has become policy, the Long Beach City Council should, as suggested in the draft, change the policy.

Otherwise, the council can do both city finances and city taxpayers a service — by adhering to what's on the books.


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