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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Report offers sobering view of Nassau debt

Nassau County Executives Edward Mangano on Jan. 10,

Nassau County Executives Edward Mangano on Jan. 10, 2014, has sought to shift the burden of tax refunds onto local governments, school districts and special districts. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A view from the outside often can come in handy.

An analysis of Nassau County's debt released by Moody's Investors Services certainly does, though not in a pleasant way.

One page of the Wall Street bond-rating agency's Credit Outlook packs a punch:

As of Feb. 21, Nassau was looking at $972 million in outstanding debt on successful property tax assessment-related refunds. The money was borrowed by the county and its financial control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.

That's almost a billion dollars -- and more than a third of the county's total debt.

And unlike borrowing used for capital projects to fix roads, buy equipment or construct buildings, residents who don't get refunds get nothing tangible from it.

There's more.

The report states that Nassau this year likely will borrow another $230 million to cover accumulated tax settlements, most of that likely for commercial property owners.

Should the county legislature approve that bonding request, Nassau's debt for tax settlement payments will vault past the billion-dollar mark.

Moody's also estimates that a decision by New York State's highest court declaring Nassau's attempt to push the cost of refunds onto towns, school districts and other local municipalities will leave the county holding the bag for $60 million a year to pay successful tax challenges in the future.

As of the end of 2012, according to Moody's, Nassau's total tax refund liability, that is refunds yet to be paid, was $298 million.

That's almost 11 percent of the county's operating budget -- another eye opener since most municipalities manage their budgets well enough to cover the cost of tax refunds the fiscally responsible way, with operating funds.

But Nassau, after more than a hundred million in state aid and a decade of fiscal oversight of both Republican and Democratic administrations, has yet to make that transition.

In fact, as Moody's also points out, Nassau has an unusually high rate of bonding for tax challenges and other expenses that should come out of operating funds: some $1.4 billion, or 47.3 percent of its outstanding long-term debt.

In other words, if Nassau had to pay, rather than borrow, those expenses would eat almost half of its budget.

The staggering amount of tax-refund-related debt alone highlights the crisis in the county's broken property assessment system.

And the overall penchant for borrowing shows how fragile county finances remain -- even as County Executive Edward Mangano, NIFA chairman Jon Kaiman and the county's employee unions attempt to lift a wage freeze that has freed hundreds of millions of dollars to go for expenses other than wages.

The report makes clear that Nassau, even after a decade under NIFA, has a long way to go.


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