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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau Dem hopefuls checking out how NIFA does business

Nassau County Legis. Laura Curran.

Nassau County Legis. Laura Curran. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Nassau lawmaker Laura Curran and Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman — both of whom want to be the next county executive — ran into each other at last week’s Nassau Interim Finance Authority meeting in Uniondale.

They watched as NIFA tossed back the county budget and approved an order requiring that Nassau produce readable versions of contracts with all county unions.

They listened as Howard Weitzman, an authority member and former county comptroller, outed the county’s proposed new tax to cover the cost of successful property assessment appeals — should anticipated revenue fall short.

“The idea of the county executive and the county legislature voting for a huge, midyear tax increase in an election year is not credible,” Weitzman said, suggesting, unsuccessfully, that NIFA demand more cuts from the county now rather than waiting to see how things turn out later. Afterward, Curran turned to Schnirman, one of her competitors for the Democratic nomination to seek the county’s top elected post — and, with it, the task of dealing with NIFA and fixing county finances.

“Jack,” Curran said she asked, “are you sure you want to do this?”

“Are you sure YOU want to?” Schnirman said he answered.

While the NIFA meeting may have been memorable for the board’s actions, the presence of two of the four Democrats seeking to run next year meant something, too.

It was the first time in memory that so many candidates for the top spot showed up.

For Schnirman, it was his second NIFA meeting. “I want to see firsthand how the current Nassau government is grappling with its financial challenges,” he said later in an interview.

For Curran, who went in with a written proposal to keep funding to get social services programs off the chopping block, it was her first. “I found it to be very interesting,” she said in a later interview. “It was very sobering.”

George Maragos, the Republican-turned-Democrat also seeking the nod to run next year, has spent years dealing with NIFA as part of his county job; and the fourth contender, Assemb. Charles Levine (D-Glen Cove), has yet to make an appearance.

NIFA meetings — which are videotaped for later posting on the authority’s website — are the only place residents can see board members slice, dice, debate, and sometimes disagree on county budget matters. During the first few years after the authority’s creation in 2000, it was not uncommon for elected officials to attend and, at the invitation of Frank Zarb, NIFA’s first chairman, to speak.

But elected officials haven’t shown up in force for years. And although there are “leaders” meetings, the gatherings don’t include the entire board.

Adam Barsky, NIFA’s chairman, has noticed the candidates. He and Curran talked, briefly, for the first time last week; he has yet to do so with Schnirman.

“I’m glad they were there,” Barsky said in an interview. “It’s obvious that to deal with the county’s problems, Nassau is going to have to look at both sides of the ledger, cutting expenses and raising revenues.” Thus far, he noted, the board has heard more about saving programs, which happens year after year — than about funding them for the long term.

And as for that proposed tax to cover the cost of property tax appeals, it’s worth noting that it’s more than a notion — it’s already in Nassau’s out-year plans to keep the budget balanced.

Could the legislature approve it in 2017 — when the county executive and every legislative seat comes up for grabs?

“The Legislature has said if their income and expense revenue doesn’t materialize, they will consider other revenue,” Brian Nevin, incumbent Republican County Executive Edward Mangano’s spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

Democratic candidates have yet to specify how they would handle the budget, and Mangano, who has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption-related charges, has yet to indicate whether he will seek a third term.

Will there be a tax-increase vote in an election year? Who will be the Democratic candidate? Who will be the Republican? And what on earth are Nassau’s incumbents going to do if NIFA orders more cuts?

Stay tuned.

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