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Long IslandNassau

Officials: Storm emergency justified $6M tree removal payment

Two trees sit on a home in Oceanside.

Two trees sit on a home in Oceanside. (Aug. 29, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau Republican officials said Thursday that the emergency caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 justified a $6.7 million payment to a tree removal service before legislative approval.

County officials say Looks Great Services Inc. of Huntington, which is set to receive $70 million for superstorm Sandy cleanup, was paid for Irene work before the legislature's Rules Committee approved its contract -- a step that typically is required before checks are issued.

But former chief deputy comptroller Frank Moroney, now the communications director for Republican county legislators, said the county charter allows the county executive to enter into purchase agreements during an emergency, and "that presupposes they're going to be paid. Emergency contracts are set up to evade the bureaucracy because the bureaucracy slows it down."

The attorney for Nassau Democratic lawmakers reads the charter differently.

Minority counsel Peter Clines said County Executive Edward Mangano should have come in person to the legislature's Rules Committee meeting on Sept. 12, 2011, to get approval for having hired Looks Great on Aug. 26 for emergency tree pruning and removal. Instead, a public works deputy commissioner presented the agreement to the committee on Dec. 5 without mentioning the firm had been paid four days earlier.

"It's an extraordinary power to expend monies without legislative approvals," Clines said. "There's no checks and balances."

Generally, the charter calls for the Rules Committee to approve contracts of more than $25,000. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli recently criticized Nassau for allowing contractors to start work before their contracts were approved, but his audit did not include Looks Great, a spokesman said Thursday.

District attorneys in Nassau and Suffolk are investigating the selection of debris-removal firms by Long Island municipalities after Sandy last fall.

Looks Great spokeswoman Risa Heller has said the company follows all legal requirements and is cooperating with government agencies.

The county has paid Looks Great $35 million of $68.8 million that the county Legislature approved for Sandy cleanup work.

The county issued the $6.7 million check to Looks Great for Irene work on Dec. 1, 2011. That day, the chairman of the county's financial control board authorized payment "because the company told the county that they were in jeopardy of going out of business if the bill was not paid in advance," the board counsel said at the time.

Heller said the company was forced to finance payment to its "employees, subcontractors and suppliers" because Nassau did not pay for its work within 10 days as agreed. She said that "while this payment delay caused hardship to Looks Great, the company fully performed all the work that was ordered." Heller also noted that Nassau "received full reimbursement" by the federal government and the state.

Moroney and Comptroller George Maragos' office noted Thursday that the legislature appropriated the money needed to pay Looks Great and other Irene contractors on Nov. 28, 2011. But appropriating money and approving specific contracts is traditionally a two-step process.

"The whole purpose of an emergency process is to circumvent those bureaucratic speed bumps," Moroney said. "What's most important is that people get the services that they need in the emergency circumstances."

Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), a veteran lawmaker, responded, "If they actually believe that declaring an emergency means they can spend money without approval, which I have never heard of, then why did they send us a contract? We're not a rubber stamp."Moroney said the administration was under "no obligation" to tell Rules Committee members that Looks Great had already been paid. "For them to say they had no idea these bills were being paid demonstrates a hopeless naivete and rises to the level of the absurd," he said.

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