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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Working around a wage freeze

Adam Barsky, chairman of The Nassau County Interim

Adam Barsky, chairman of The Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, left, with other board members at a meeting in Uniondale, Jan. 5, 2017. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

It’s not hard to fault the logic of the decision by Nassau’s public employee unions to push new state legislation that — should Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo decide to sign it — would bar a financial control board from again imposing a total wage freeze.

In 2011, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, at the request of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, froze salaries and contractual step increases — salary hikes based on years on the job — to slow the rise of county expenses. NIFA finally lifted the freeze in April 2014.

In all, NIFA’s action saved Nassau a hefty $230 million through the end of 2013.

The freeze initially was geared toward giving Nassau breathing room enough to cut expenses here and raise additional revenues there, to level out years of structural budget deficits.

That didn’t happen, however.

“Nothing’s changed,” said Jerry Laricchiuta, president of Nassau’s Civil Service Employees Association, arguing that union members with the lowest salaries ended up being hurt the most.

“Taxes didn’t go down,” he said. “The deficit is still there.”

It’s a compelling argument — but one that, as NIFA chairman Adam Barsky said in an interview Wednesday, deserves consideration of counter arguments as well.

For one, Nassau — where all but one countywide office is up for election this year — soon could have new leaders who may, or may not, be more aggressive in wrangling Nassau’s deficit. The 2011 freeze, which was challenged by county unions, became unpopular even with some NIFA members because it lasted longer than initially anticipated.

For another, the threat of a wage freeze can be a useful tool when Nassau enters into negotiations with unions whose contracts are slated to end soon, Barsky said.

“No one wants a wage freeze, but it can be an effective tool in negotiations when making the point that to come out of this everyone in Nassau, from unions to residents to officials, are going to have to share the pain,” Barsky said.

The state legislation passed last week would allow Nassau union employees to get step increases even during a wage freeze. But there’s the question of whether a law that limits a control board’s powers in Nassau would impact other financial control boards in the state.

Is Cuomo considering signing the legislation?

“This is one of 500 pieces of legislation that passed both houses in the last weeks of the legislative session and it, along with the rest of them, will be reviewed by Counsel’s Office,” a Cuomo spokesman replied in an email.

Meanwhile, NIFA is awaiting completion of a report that includes recommendations about what NIFA could cut if elected officials fail to meet the board’s demands for expense cuts in the 2018 budget.

All of which sounds like the usual back and forth that’s been going on between NIFA and Nassau for years.

But after more than a decade of financial problems, it may be time for Nassau to consider that it may never be restored to the service-providing powerhouse it was in the 1990s.

Now may be the time to consider shedding services that the county wants to offer but can no longer afford — services that Nassau’s towns, cities and villages already provide.

The idea has been floated before, with little success. But Nassau may be reaching the point of no return — where there’s no other way to go.

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