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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

NIFA budget cuts would mean embarrassment for Nassau lawmakers

Jon Kaiman, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance

Jon Kaiman, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, is seen on Oct. 9, 2013. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

In an election year, as Nassau County legislators pitch voters on why they should keep their jobs running county government, there's plentiful irony in a financial control board's moving toward forcing budget cuts.

The directors of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority are not elected. And, as such, they will have a very high -- and very public -- hurdle to clear before interjecting themselves into decisions now made by the county executive and lawmakers.

Those decisions -- on which services are mandated and which are optional, and which department gets higher funding and which sees funds cut -- have a direct impact on Nassau's residents.

As such, NIFA will have to do almost the impossible to convince residents that the board should make such decisions, rather than officials residents voted into office.

Yes, Nassau remains fiscally fragile after more than 15 years under a state control board. And, yes, lower-than-expected sales tax revenue, the lack so far of hoped-for revenue from video lottery terminals and the legislature's decision to scuttle mega-money-making school zone speed cameras have added significantly more stress to the budget.

But Nassau's elected officials -- from County Executive Edward Mangano to lawmakers to Comptroller George Maragos -- would have to demonstrably shirk their responsibilities before NIFA credibly could assume such control.

Some say they already have -- pointing to the gap between recurring expenses and revenue that persists, even in Mangano's proposed 2016 budget. Even with Mangano's proposed property tax increase, the county will have a $130 million hole in the budget, according to NIFA's most recent analysis.

Which is why NIFA -- for the first time in the authority's tenure -- is creating infrastructure that would allow the board to monitor spending and, if necessary, force cuts throughout the budget year.

Such decisions would be made by the board's new committees in public, and subject to approval of a majority of NIFA's full board, according to NIFA chairman Jon Kaiman.

Kaiman, a former North Hempstead Town supervisor, said he is keenly aware of how complicated and potentially disruptive it would be for unelected board members to make decisions that would impact residents directly.

But he said in an interview yesterday, "We cannot stand by and watch Rome burn."

Some believe NIFA's move is meant to scare Nassau's Republican-majority legislature, which, two weeks from Election Day, is working on amendments to Mangano's budget in hopes of killing the proposed 1.2 percent tax increase.

Not so, said Kaiman.

Even with the proposed tax increase, he said, Nassau will find it difficult to balance revenue and expenditures next year. So the NIFA board will go through with its restructuring -- and the actions of Nassau's elected officials will determine whether the new committees will be active, or advisory, Kaiman said.

Several years ago, the Mangano administration went to court in a failed attempt to challenge NIFA's authority. And, should the board decide to use its power to mandate budget cuts, it's likely the issue will end up in court again.

But there's a way to make the issue -- and NIFA itself -- disappear. It's for Nassau's elected officials to make such corrective decisions on their own.

That's their job.

And it would be extraordinary -- and a complete dereliction of duty -- to cede power to an unelected board.

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