On Monday, Nassau lawmakers are slated to make a choice:
Borrow to pay an estimated $45 million to settle a court judgment won by two men exonerated in the 1984 rape and murder of a Lynbrook teenager.
Or pay the costs out of a county reserve fund.
The choice has become a political contest, with Republican lawmakers, who backed borrowing for the payout during Republican County Executive Edward Mangano’s tenure, pushing to tap the reserve fund.
Democrats, who supported the payout option during Mangano’s term, back borrowing — just a month into the administration of Democratic County Executive Laura Curran.
What a difference an election makes.
What’s lost in the battling, however, is that there are more than two choices.
Nassau could borrow a portion of the judgment and use reserve funds for the rest. Or it could play chess with the budget, moving things around to free up money that also could go toward the settlement.
Budgets tend to be like brains; they look solid but actually have the consistency of pea soup. That is to say that a hard position on borrowing is no more necessary than a hard position on raiding the county’s reserve fund.
Last week, Jack Schnirman, the new county comptroller, took the unusual steps of releasing a “fact sheet” on county finances, and briefing Curran’s office and legislative staff, Republican and Democrat alike.
The sheet doesn’t back one option or the other. Still, it uses simple arithmetic to arrive at a point:
A $46.8 million rainy day fund, as of the end of 2016.
Minus a $45 million legal payout.
Leaves only a $1.8 million rainy day fund — and angst over whether Nassau’s 2018 budget can withstand a rainy day payout.
In addition — pun intended — Schnirman’s fact sheet puts to rest the notion that there could be $179 million in surplus playing-around money in the county’s operating budget.
Nassau in 2004 was ordered by a federal judge to pay $36 million in damages to John Restivo and Dennis Halstead — $1 million to each man for each of the 18 years they were imprisoned for the rape and murder of Theresa Fusco. They were freed in 2003 after the discovery of DNA evidence exonerated them.
The county appealed the award all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this month declined to consider the case.
The county has until Feb. 7 to satisfy the award — and to pay $5 million in attorney fees and $2.7 million in interest on the award and fees.
The county legislature is being asked to approve $45 million in borrowing — which also would cover the $874,000 cost of issuing a bond, plus $107,000 in attorney fee payments and interest.
The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state board that controls county finances, has discouraged the county’s use of borrowing to pay court judgments.
Back in 2014, however, the judgment made several lists of top verdicts in New York State.
On Monday, lawmakers are slated to receive an artificially narrow selection of choices to satisfy that debt — when what they really need is a plan to do that, without wrecking the county budget.