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Nassau lawmakers delay vote on borrowing $45M to pay exonerated pair

Majority Republicans say they want answers about the state of county finances and cash reserves.

Nassau has until Feb. 7, 2018, to comply

Nassau has until Feb. 7, 2018, to comply with a court order to pay the settlement with John Restivo, left, and Dennis Halstead, seen in a 2005 photo, who spent 18 years in prison for the rape and murder of Theresa Fusco, 16, before they were exonerated. Photo Credit: Newsday / Dick Yarwood

Majority Republicans on the Nassau County legislature tabled a vote Monday on County Executive Laura Curran’s request to borrow $45 million to pay a court judgment won by two men exonerated in the 1984 rape and murder of a Lynbrook teenager.

Republicans cited unanswered questions about the county’s finances and cash reserves. Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said he will call a vote on the bonding at the Feb. 5 meeting after legislators receive answers to their questions.

Nassau has until Feb. 7 to comply with a court order to pay the settlement with John Restivo and Dennis Halstead, who spent 18 years in prison for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco. They were released in 2003 after the discovery of DNA evidence exonerating them.

If the borrowing request is rejected, Nassau would pay the settlement in cash from a fund set aside by the administration of former County Executive Edward Mangano. A federal court had required Nassau to reserve cash in a bank account or put up a bond as proof it could pay.

Republicans Monday asked for a line-item breakdown of the county reserve and litigation funds, along with any money already allocated for specific costs.

Lawmakers need 13 votes to authorize the bonding. Republicans control the Legislature 11-8.

Curran said the $45 million set aside for the case is needed to ensure the county can afford to pay employees and vendors.

“We are putting a 2018 financial plan together and the opportunity to bond adds to that flexibility,” said Curran spokesman Mike Martino. “We will collect the information requested and report back to the legislature.”

An outside auditing firm determined that as of the end of 2016, Nassau had $46.8 million of available fund balance, according to Chief Deputy Comptroller Shari James. Paying the settlement out of cash, James said, would leave $1.8 million in available fund balance — creating the risk a credit downgrade.

An additional $132 million in reserves are committed to pension payments, tax refunds and debt service. Nassau will not have an audited statement on its 2017 finances, including its reserves fund, in early summer.

Legis. Steven Rhoads (R-Bellmore) said the borrowing is “purely about how it’s going to look to the bond rating agencies if we have a $45 million unanticipated expense hit the books. And the question for us is, does that justify adding $45 million to the county’s debt.’”

Also Monday, lawmakers approved Curran’s appointments of Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen and Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy to the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

Legislators also approved the nominations of Jared Kasschau as county attorney; Ken Arnold as commissioner of public works; Eileen Krieb as the head the Parks Department; Gabriella Castillo to run the Coordinated Agency for Spanish Americans and Richard Kessel to serve on the Industrial Development Agency board.

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