County legislators are at an impasse over borrowing $18 million to pay for improvements at Nassau Community College because of Democratic concerns that Republican County Executive Edward Mangano will shift the money from the college to the county to support next year’s deficit-plagued budget.
Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said in an interview this week his delegation wants legal safeguards written into the borrowing plan to limit proceeds solely to college projects.
But Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) and Mangano have refused to bind the borrowing to specific projects, saying there are no plans to spend the money outside the school.
Republicans at first said the county’s financial control board had forbidden Nassau from borrowing for a single purpose — a practice the county followed for years. However, Jeremy Wise, general counsel for the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, denied imposing any such prohibition.
Because of the dispute, plans remain in limbo to improve roads, renovate the south and west parking lots at the college, to replace windows as well as heating and electrical systems, and to make the school’s facilities accessible to the disabled.
“These are basic health and safety projects that are fundamental to the safe operation of the campus,” NCC President W. Hubert Keen wrote to Abrahams this week. “Very important under our current circumstances, the status of our infrastructure and its maintenance make up part of the Middle States standards which are under review.”
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has warned NCC that its accreditation is in jeopardy if the school does not show improvements in planning, leadership, resources and integrity by Nov. 1. Losing accreditation could put federal student aid programs at risk and affect everything from a school’s reputation to its enrollment to its budget.
“Now more than ever we need your vote and your support,” Keen concluded.
Although the college has its own board of trustees, the county has always borrowed on behalf of NCC. The county charter requires 13 votes of the 19-member legislature to approve borrowing, which means the 12-member Republican majority would need at least one Democrat vote.
To date, Democrats have abstained on the issue, forcing Republicans to put the borrowing on hold.
For months, Democrats have refused to approve borrowing for most projects in an attempt to persuade Republicans to hire an independent inspector general to review contracts. But Republicans maintain the position already exists, citing the Mangano-appointed investigations commissioner.
Abrahams said Democrats are willing to support the college but want a legal commitment that the borrowed money is used “solely for the purpose of the college.” He noted the borrowing ordinance allows Mangano to shift money among projects of a similar nature.
“If it’s not limited, what will happen is they will find some other source to spend it on at the county and hand off contracts to friends of the administration and the Republican Party,” Abrahams said. “They want to have the ability, if the college spends only $14 million, to keep $4 million for themselves.”
Spokesmen for Mangano and Gonsalves insist there are no plans to shift the money.
“The administration’s only intention has been to use these capital funds for projects at the college,” Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said.
Gonsalves spokesman Frank Moroney said, “The concern of the minority is that the money bonded by the county for the benefit of the college would be spent elsewhere but that has never happened.”
Nevin first said that NIFA last year “required the county to include language so that bonds could be used more broadly but for similar purposes. This was done because the county had significant bond authorizations that were approved but not drawn upon and couldn’t be drawn upon because the purpose/project changed.”
Nevin included an October 2014 email from Wise suggesting the county could avoid a build up in unspent proceeds by including more flexible language in its borrowing language to allow spending on projects with similar “periods of probable usefulness.”
“NIFA never prohibited the practice of borrowing for a single purpose,” Wise said Wednesday. “We merely suggested a legal alternative to allow money to be reallocated between similar projects, which we thought they would find useful when borrowing for multiple projects.”
Moroney contended the Mangano and Gonsalves rejected the Democrats’ conditions “because they’ve never conditioned bond ordinances.”
But a memo to the legislature in June from deputy county attorney Samantha Goetz noted that most past borrowings were legally limited to particular projects until early 2015 when the county changed its practice at NIFA’s suggestion to allow unspent proceeds to be reprogrammed.