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Nassau taps reserves to pay 911 lawsuit

Nassau County 911 call center in Mineola. (March

Nassau County 911 call center in Mineola. (March 15, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County will dip into its cash reserves next week to pay a $7.8 million court settlement with female 911 operators after failing to secure approval by a state financial control board to borrow the funds, officials said Wednesday.

Last month, a federal court ordered Nassau, which is facing a $310 million deficit, to make payment by Feb. 13 to compensate the operators, who sued on the grounds that they were paid less than men doing similar work.

With the deadline looming Monday, Deputy County Executive Rob Walker said Wednesday that Nassau would pay the judgment on time, out of its roughly $90 million in cash reserves.

The county legislature approved the settlement in June, but the matter has yet to come before the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which took control of the county's finances last year. NIFA must approve all county borrowing.

If NIFA approves funding for the settlement, the county will use those funds to replenish its cash reserves, Walker said.

NIFA said it would not object to this strategy. "It is the county's choice whether they want to pay the 911 judgment in advance of NIFA considering the county's request for borrowing authorization," said the board's general counsel, Jeremy Wise.

Nassau officials had hoped NIFA would vote on the settlement at its Feb. 1 meeting. But Walker said the county failed to provide board members with details they requested on Nassau's potential liability for upcoming legal judgments.

"NIFA will act at its next board meeting if it receives complete documentation from the county concerning its total projected liability over the term of the multiyear plan," Wise said of borrowing for the 911 operators' settlement.

Nassau estimates that it needs $65 million in bonding to pay court settlements over the next four years. But in a recent bond offering, the county said it could face an additional $280 million in liability from utility companies that are challenging their property tax determinations.

Walker anticipates that settlements in those cases, if they occur, will be several years off. "Sixty-five million is our number, barring any unforeseen judgments," he said.

In a memo to Wise Wednesday, County Attorney John Ciampoli said Nassau has several options if it were forced to pay out the utility cases, including a multi-year structured settlement or additional borrowing.

The county insists the 911 operators and supervisors will be paid by Feb. 13. If the county defaults on the judgment, it would face 6 percent compounding interest payments amounting to $39,000 per month, said Janice Goodman, the operator's attorney. "But we are hoping to get paid in a timely fashion," Goodman said.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 on behalf of about 150 women who said they were paid $10,000 less per year than fire communications operators -- nearly all of them men -- in violation of the New York State Equal Pay Act. The women took a $7 million settlement last month and will each get $40,000 to $60,000, depending on their salary and grade. The remaining $800,000 is for attorneys fees and other costs.

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