Richard Nicolello, GOP leader of the Nassau County Legislature, sharply criticized County Executive Laura Curran’s administration for not taking steps to borrow $23 million to help fund a $45 million legal judgment, and objected to the bulk of Curran’s proposal to raise traffic and parks fees.
Nicolello, of New Hyde Park, made his remarks during a legislative budget committee hearing Tuesday, during which county officials disclosed a $50 million deficit in last year’s budget. Curran, a Democrat, took office Jan. 1 of this year.
The legal judgment is due to be paid to two men who, after spending years in prison, were exonerated in the 1984 rape and murder of a Lynbrook teenager.
In February, lawmakers voted 13-6 to authorize $23 million in borrowing to help pay the judgment.
The $45 million judgment was paid out of the 2018 operating budget, Curran spokesman Michael Martino told Newsday.
The issue came to light when GOP legislators pressed Curran administration officials about why they hadn’t yet sought approval from the county’s financial control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, to borrow the money.
“So the administration unilaterally decided that it would not proceed with what it had proposed, and what we had approved, and decided it would go in a different direction?” Nicolello asked Mark Page, deputy county executive for finance.
Page responded that the county budget as of mid-March “doesn’t rely on that bonding.” However, Page said that, “by the time we get through ’18, I think there’s a high chance we will be relying on that bonding to cover our needs.”
Nicolello replied that lawmakers did not authorize the borrowing as “a fallback position for the county to pay for any other expenses that came forward. So from our perspective, if you’re not using it now, we may consider withdrawing that authorization.”
Nicolello noted that Curran, in a budget proposal submitted to NIFA on March 15, proposed $3 million in new or increased fees, although he was against some of them, including a hike in red light camera fees.
“To come back and now ask us to have the residents of Nassau County pay more in fees, when the money is already there to pay this judgment,” Nicolello said, . . . you have eroded whatever good faith exists. . . . We will be very skeptical as we go forward for the rest of this year.”
Former County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, had set aside money to cover the settlement amount.
Earlier this year, Deputy County Attorney Conal Denion said Curran wanted to spread the settlement costs over 15 years. Using cash to pay the judgment, Denion said, would create an immediate $45 million deficit, as the money was not accounted for in either the 2017 or 2018 budgets.
Martino said in an email that “The County Executive acted in the best interest of the taxpayers by reserving the right to bond a settlement and provide flexibility in the 2018 budget.”
Also at the hearing, the county comptroller’s office released a fact sheet showing there was a $48.9 million budget deficit for 2017, according to preliminary unaudited results from Nassau’s five primary operating funds.
Officials said the county last year had lower-than-expected revenues, including $3 million less from Nassau Off Track Betting Corp. and $6.3 million less from a Federal Transit Authority grant that had yet to be received. Also, revenues from various county departments fell short by about $6.6 million.