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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau contracting: The issue that never seems to die

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority added language on

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority added language on vendor payments to its contract approval forms this month. Above, NIFA members meet in Uniondale on June 30, 2016. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Why is there yet another brouhaha over Nassau’s contracting process — particularly when there’s zero ambiguity in the county charter about when some contractors are supposed to start working?

That work is supposed to start after — rather than before — agreements successfully make their way through the Nassau’s cumbersome approval process.

More specifically, such work is supposed to begin only after those contracts pass through the legislature, and bear the signature of the county executive or his chief deputy.

Since 2011, there’s been an additional step for contracts over $50,000, however. They require approval from the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which oversees county finances.

While the charter’s intent is clear, the process of moving a contract from A to Z requires multiple reviews, and multiple sign offs. That can take a long time.

It’s essential to note, however, that the multistep review was put into place to reform the approval process after a scandal involving a 1997 county self-insurance plan that was supposed to save Nassau a million dollars a month, but ended up costing $70 million.

A five-year investigation by federal and county prosecutors into the scandal, which was unearthed by a Nassau lawmaker’s question about the contract’s increasing costs, led to 11 convictions. They included a former deputy county executive, who’d accepted a bribe to push the contract — which, authorities said, was rubber stamped by other Nassau officials.

By 2012, officials in the administration of County Executive Edward Mangano were citing the revamped approval process as a stumbling block to getting things done.

But some lawmakers and NIFA board members began complaining about getting more and more contracts for approval long after work had started — and, in some instances, finished. The contracts included those for nonprofits and politically connected law firms — along with a Superstorm Sandy cleanup agreement that is under investigation by federal authorities.

In 2013, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli delved into the issue, examining some contracts of $50,000 or more issued between January 2010 and March 2012.

His office reported that Nassau’s process included six levels of approval, over a maximum of 45 days. And that was before such contracts moved on for NIFA review, which stretched the approval time to an average 85 days.

For decades, Nassau has allowed some vendors to begin work before contract approval, the report said.

However — and this is key — the report said that, “allowing goods and services to be procured prior to completing the formal contract review process defeats the purpose of these external control procedures and is generally not a good business practice because neither party is protected by the terms and conditions of the unapproved contract.”

So, what’s the solution? NIFA, going forward, wants to blunt the practice by not guaranteeing payment for “any work commenced” on contracts prior to necessary approval.

In addition, Legis. Howard J. Kopel (R-Lawrence), whose letter to the Mangano administration resulted in lawmakers’ receiving a report identifying 47 unapproved contracts — some dating back six to eight years — said he will continue to press for change.

“I was looking for this to stop,” he said. “It looks like they are taking that seriously, that they are trying to clean things up.”

Which would help. But at some point Nassau’s approval process also needs an update — which also would help the issue go away.


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