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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau comptroller George Maragos takes tougher stance on finances

The Nassau Health Care Corp., which runs the

The Nassau Health Care Corp., which runs the county's only public hospital, wrote off nearly $8 million in patient charges in 2011 and 2012 because of faulty billing procedures, according to an audit released by Nassau Comptroller George Maragos. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos, who for some of his tenure appeared to give County Executive Edward Mangano a pass as Nassau's budget problems mounted, appears to be a taking a tougher stance these days.

Maragos, in an interview last week, pointedly disagreed with that assessment, saying he's always been an aggressive fiscal watchdog.

Still, his last few analyses of Nassau's budget and critiques of the county's operations appear to be far more pointed than some of his earlier efforts.

In analyzing the 2011 county budget, Maragos stood with fellow Republican Mangano in saying the spending plan was balanced. Deficits in that budget later prompted a state control board to take over Nassau's finances.

Maragos said he did the right thing at that time because the Nassau Interim Finance Authority's takeover was spurred by a predicted budget gap for 2011, rather than an actual deficit.

"They changed the rules," he said, referring to NIFA's demand that the budget be balanced under generally accepted accounting principles that barred Nassau from counting borrowed money as revenue.

Maragos -- and Mangano, for that matter -- were right in asserting that NIFA had accepted a different standard in balancing the budget for former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat.

But maybe if NIFA had been tougher then, Nassau would be in less financial trouble now.

To his credit, Maragos did part with the Mangano administration on two key policy points.

He did not support a proposed deal Mangano wanted to make in 2011 with developer Charles Wang to borrow up to $400 million for a new Nassau Coliseum. Voters rejected a proposed tax increase to fund the project in a referendum that year.

Maragos also was the first to point out that the Mangano administration's policy of settling tax assessment appeals en masse would shift the tax burden to property owners who did not appeal.

There were several budget reports, however, that spurred harsh criticism of Maragos -- particularly those that trumpeted surpluses that were possible largely because of county borrowing.

Last year, former Comptroller Howard Weitzman -- whom Maragos defeated twice -- complained to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission about what he alleged was "false and misleading" financial reporting by Maragos.

Weitzman, a Democrat, asked the SEC to investigate to determine whether Maragos and other top Republican leaders in county government postponed payment of $88 million in property tax settlements in 2012 so Nassau would have a surplus for the year.

Maragos said he has heard nothing from the SEC. "I'm sure it's because it was an inaccurate accusation," he said.

Maragos has taken tough stances in recent audits and inquiries.

Two weeks ago, he said he would investigate reports that part-time Nassau workers were working more than part-time hours. He said his office would seek to determine whether part-time employees -- many of whom are politically connected -- actually worked the number of hours, and overtime, recorded on their time sheets.

Last week, Maragos released an audit on a politically connected contractor -- who, the audit also pointed out, was not the lowest bidder for the job -- who allegedly overcharged Nassau by at least $322,000. Maragos referred the case to the county district attorney's office.

He also released a report warning of the potential of a $77 million deficit in 2014, largely because sales tax revenue was coming in far below what the county expected.

Maragos, who twice tried and failed to run for state office, said he hasn't ruled out a third run for comptroller. "I got that [desire for higher office] off my chest," he said. "I will continue to focus on being the comptroller."

Maragos' office has produced a string of tough reports with information that's useful and pertinent for taxpayers. In that, he's following in the footsteps of another Republican comptroller, Fred Parola, who sounded warnings about the cost of the county's flawed assessment system long before Nassau agreed to scrutiny from a state control board. At one point, Parola went so far as to acknowledge that Nassau, under then-County Executive Thomas Gulotta, came close to not having funds enough to handle payroll.

Going forward, Maragos needs to stay aggressive and straight in his reports. With NIFA -- with its Gov. Andrew Cuomo-appointed majority -- more and more acting in lockstep with Mangano, an independent comptroller is essential.

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