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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Sewer plan not a solution to Nassau crisis

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano unveils a debt

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano unveils a debt reduction and sewer stabilization plan in Mineola, New York. (May 3, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County last week abruptly told department heads to come up with new labor cuts.

The county also announced that -- for the first time in a decade -- it would delay closing the books on last year's budget by a month, to July 31.

That was on top of acknowledging that its reserve fund was virtually depleted because money had been shifted to help close 2011's expected $50-million budget hole.

And, all of that is on top of a Newsday report Tuesday with eye-opening details about the county's scheme to swap operation and management of its wastewater system for an upfront payment of at least $750 million.

Nassau residents for the first time would pay for sewer service based in part on how much water they use, according to county officials. They also would be on the hook to pay a "surcharge" for unexpected capital expenditures.

What does the scurrying about mean? It confirms that the administration of County Executive Edward Mangano has done a dreadful job handling the county's fiscal crisis.

Two-and-a-half years into Mangano's term, administration officials still want to blame everyone but themselves for Nassau's stubborn, maddening inability to right its finances.

The county has made a decision not to raise its portion of the property tax. That's fine, given the desperation of families struggling in the Great Recession's aftermath.

But the administration has yet to roll up its sleeves and handle the other side of the equation. What services should Nassau offer? And what's the best way to preserve them given the county's fiscal challenges?

That kind of execution takes skill. Instead, the administration has offered more than two years of schemes: a casino, a new Nassau Coliseum, a minor league baseball team and now privatization of the county's wastewater management system.

Thank goodness not one, but two measures to circumvent the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state board overseeing county finances, failed in Albany.

Who knows what's next?

There's nothing wrong with big dreams or building toward Nassau's future, but they're no substitute for grunt work. As Fitch, the Wall Street bond-rating agency, noted recently: The administration's "cost-cutting targets thus far have not been met."

To be fair, Mangano has accomplished some cost-cutting. He's eliminated 392 employees since the end of 2011 and shifted some costs of successful property tax assessment appeals back to towns, villages and school districts. That measure -- along with others, including Mangano's attempt to unilaterally rescind terms of county labor contracts to save money -- are in court.

The administration seems to be moving in fits and starts -- with NIFA, as it should, and the threat of a bond-rating downgrade combining to ignite some sense of urgency. Could the administration be banking on fiscal salvation to rise from the sewer?

If a wastewater operation and management deal goes through -- a majority of NIFA directors, it should be noted, tried to kill the proposal -- Nassau would score a huge upfront payment from the financier. The bulk would go to pay down debt and replenish reserves. But more than a $100 million is supposed to go to fill operating budget holes, beginning in 2013.

That's Mangano's re-election year.