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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Pointed questions for NIFA

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority meets in Uniondale

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority meets in Uniondale on June 30, 2016. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

“Hi Joye,

“I’ve been meaning to ask you some questions for a while, and the front-page headline [NIFA DEMANDS $100M IN CUTS] set me off, again.

“NIFA has been in existence since 2000. My question is: What . . . have they been doing for 17 years, and what made them wake up and suddenly demand $100 million in savings?

“Are they just another bunch of hacks Nassau residents are supporting? Are they businessmen looking out for their own interests? Are they afraid of Nassau’s elected officials? . . .

“Are Nassau’s officials just too smart and thwart NIFA at every turn? Is their mandate structured in a way that it looks like they’re working to protect taxpayers, but it’s just another joke?

“I’m not picking on a particular party because I think they are looking out just for themselves.”

I forwarded the questions, which came via a reader email, to Adam Barsky, NIFA’s fourth and current chairman, on Monday. And he had a lot to say in response.

First, some history.

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority has been operating since 2000. But for most of the past 17 years, NIFA only had the “soft” power to make suggestions to Nassau’s elected officials about how to handle the county budget. That changed in 2011, after the board determined that Nassau’s budget gap had grown large enough to trigger the authority’s “hard” powers, which include rejecting budgets and directing elected officials to make changes.

But to the reader’s point: What has NIFA been doing since then?

“NIFA has done a lot,” Barsky said in an interview.

“From wage freezes, to rejecting budgets and contracts, to bringing down the deficit, to systematically getting the county away from the kinds of bad practices . . . like borrowing for severance, borrowing for [tax] refunds and borrowing for [court] judgments.”

Recently, Nassau’s Wall Street bond rating went up.

Barsky said: “The rating agency feels better that there is a NIFA in place, successfully pushing the county in the direction of having more frugal practices and more discipline.”

The improvements, he said, “are the result of what NIFA has forced the county to do.”

Could NIFA force the county to do more? Could NIFA push hard enough so that Nassau’s financial picture improves more quickly? Yes, NIFA could, except authority members are acutely aware that they’ve been appointed — rather than elected by Nassau’s residents — to get that job done.

As such, NIFA’s been hesitant about encroaching on what it views as elected officials’ territory. But that could change, given that all but one countywide office is up for election in November.

Last week, NIFA said it would require Nassau to cut $100 million in expenses from its 2018 budget. Nassau officials are balking, saying such a cut would force the county to shed services and hundreds of employees.

But NIFA will reject a proposed 2018 budget that includes no significant cuts, Barsky said. If county officials balk, the authority — for the first time ever — will impose cuts itself, he said.

Barsky has said his goal is to put the authority out of business, by pushing Nassau officials to strengthen county finances enough so the control period (finally!) ends.

That explains last week’s aggressiveness.

“It’s an election year and we are not going to see new revenues, we have labor contracts expiring, and we need to know how the county intends to pay for new ones,” Barsky said. “We have the right to be saying, ‘You guys need to be thinking about these things now.’”

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