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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Politics or not, Maragos offers a brutal Nassau budget assessment

Was that a news release?

Or a campaign statement?

Either way, Nassau comptroller George Maragos — a Republican-just-turned Democrat — seems to have found the light.

For the first time in all of his years as comptroller, Maragos released a statement that put the county’s fiscal problems right out front — and in brutally plain language.

The headline: “Maragos: County $3.0B Proposed 2017 Budget Has $134M GAAP Deficit Risk After 3.2% Increased Spending.”

Translation: The 2017 budget proposed by Republican County Executive Edward Mangano — who Maragos, someday, hopes to run against — has a great big $134 million hole in it.

And to top it off, the financially squeezed county wants to increase spending by 3.2 percent, rather than taking a more frugal approach — which would be to cut or hold expenses steady.

Where are the increases coming from? Maragos tells us that too: “A 4.4-precent increase in budgeted employee salaries and benefits and a projected increase in debt service costs of $25.6 million.” Again, to translate: Rising salaries, increased benefit costs and the expense of Nassau’s borrowing.

All of which would make for good campaign fodder next year should Maragos become the Democrats’ pick to take on Mangano, who is said to be considering going for a third term.

Ah, but feast often gives way to famine.

For Maragos, that would be the tenor of budget-related releases generated by the comptroller’s office for most of his two terms — which opponents, either in a Democratic primary or general election campaign, likely would use against him.

In years’ past Maragos routinely issued budget reports touting Nassau’s budget surpluses.

But those “surpluses” — as the releases would detail much lower down — were calculated by including borrowing in Nassau’s revenue calculations.

To be fair, the comptroller calculates expenses against revenues two ways. Under the county charter, borrowing can be counted as revenue.

But since 2000, when the state Nassau Interim Finance Authority was created to monitor county finances, the more accurate measurement — under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles — eliminated borrowing from the revenue column.

As it turns out, that’s the measure most relevant to Nassau residents. Think of a dipstick shoved into a vessel of red ink. Pull it back and, voila, you know why Mangano’s proposed 2017 budget includes so many fee increases.

The county’s working to narrow a deficit that becomes crystal clear under GAAP measurements.

But Maragos wasn’t finished yet.

He points out that, in addition to raising and initiating new fees, the proposed budget wants to pull $15 million from its rainy day fund. But, he goes on, with increasing debt, deferred pension fund and property tax refund costs, and other potential liabilities, Nassau could come close to draining its reserve fund.

Again, to be fair, the fight to balance Nassau’s budget is not new. But it is rare to hear the county’s elected officials address the issue, and so clearly.

Nobody wants to build a campaign around a deficit. Which is too bad — because someday, somebody’s going to have to fix it.

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