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Nassau narrows options to plug $30M budget hole

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano urged legislative leaders

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano urged legislative leaders figure out how to replace $30 million in projected annual revenue that would be lost by repealing the county's unpopular school zone speed camera program. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Republican county lawmakers have narrowed the options to plug a $30 million budget hole left by the repeal of the school-zone speed camera program, with a focus on ending a $13 million hospital subsidy and dramatically hiking 911 call fees.

Mangano, a Republican, had pressed the county legislature to approve budget amendments addressing the shortfall when it voted unanimously on Dec. 15 to repeal the unpopular camera program. But the Democratic minority blocked the emergency amendment, which would have required 13 votes for passage.

Nassau will enter 2015 with its $2.98 billion budget out of balance. Mangano downplayed the significance, saying the county's state fiscal control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, and major Wall Street bond rating agencies know the county will address the new deficit.

"This selection of amendments will keep the budget in check," Mangano said in an interview last week. "It's a solid plan to fill a $30 million hole."

A spokesman for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said there's no requirement in state law for the county to enter a year with a balanced budget. Eric Naughton, Nassau's top finance deputy, said the budget must only be balanced when it is adopted, "but changes can occur afterwards that cause it to be out of balance."County lawmakers hope to act on the amendments at their first meeting of 2015, although Mangano said two of its four proposals need no further approval. They are selling ads on new electronic billboards that would go up on county-owned land along the Long Island Expressway -- estimated to raise $6 million a year -- and ending the county's annual $13 million "mission payment" to NuHealth, the public benefit corporation that runs the Nassau University Medical Center.

The county already has an advertising contract with Manhattan-based All Vision LLC that covers electronic billboards. Lawmakers simply must choose six sites, Mangano said.

Mangano said "there's a commitment to work with the state to . . . [make up] the $13 million" for NuHealth, but provided no details. Nassau's obligation to pay the yearly subsidy ends Dec. 31.

Victor Politi, NuHealth's chief executive, said: "We are working with Nassau County and New York State to make sure we secure the $13 million," but he also did not elaborate.

 

Can't act alone for all plans

Other amendment items require local or state approval. State and Nassau legislators would need to vote to increase the county's longtime surcharge on 911 calls made from landlines, from 35 cents to $1. The initiative would raise about $8 million annually, officials said. Suffolk also imposes the 35-cent surcharge, which appears on customers' bills.

State lawmakers would need to approve Nassau's request to keep revenue from the tickets police officers issue on the LIE, a state highway. Mangano said the county wants to keep $6 million, equal to its annual costs to patrol the highway.

"Right now we patrol it and the state takes the money," Mangano said. "Logically, that should go to Nassau County."

Previous requests by Nassau and Suffolk to keep the LIE ticket revenue died in the State Senate when Democrats were in control, and it is unclear whether the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would go along.

Mangano and Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said they've lobbied Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) on the issue. Skelos is expected to become majority leader in January.

A Skelos spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment, but Mangano said he thought Skelos "seemed supportive." Gonsalves spokesman Matt Fernando said of Gonsalves: "She thinks we have Albany's support."

Minority legislative Democrats are wary.

While other unpopular options -- including cuts to youth programs and the NICE bus subsidy -- were taken off the table, Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said ending the NUMC subsidy was just as bad because it would affect service to the poor and underinsured.

"For us, it's a non-starter," Abrahams said. "We just have questions on all of them."

 

Increase called fee hike

Abrahams said the increase in the 911 surcharge would represent another fee hike. Democrats this year opposed a package that raised fees for golf passes, home repair permits and other services.

The LIE billboards may bother nearby residents, Abrahams said.

Democrats have suggested canceling $5 million in contracts for which money hasn't been spent and dipping into the county's $120 million reserve fund.

Republicans would only need a majority to pass the amendments in January.

NIFA chairman Jon Kaiman said $30 million is a "pretty significant loss in revenue, so we're going to have to take a serious look at what we do next."

Mangano, who had warned lawmakers of the "painful" budget choices a repeal would bring, said it's up them to decide how to fill the gap.

"It's important the legislature takes the fiscally responsible action of filling the hole created by their repeal," he said.

Fernando said the GOP majority understands the urgency: "It's something that needs to be done as soon as possible."

With Rick Brand

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