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NIFA: Satisfied with superficial answers?

Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance

Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, speaks with reporters following a public meeting in Uniondale on Thursday evening, June 30, 2016. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Nassau’s financial control board appears to be more accepting of less information about the county’s finances than it has in the past, despite tough talk of forcing the county to balance its budget.

Last week, Adam Barsky, the new chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, said the NIFA board will accept a county plan to pare $50 million from a projected $130 million deficit.

That “Action Plan” submitted by Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano’s budget director was a less-than-half-page-long list of expense cuts and revenue increases, with no explanation of any of them.

For example, the county proposed saving $8.5 million through lower spending on utilities and other general expenses. Will Nassau turn off its lights? It projects a $2.2 million increase in revenue from the county’s traffic violations bureau. Are speed cameras coming back?

Past NIFA chairmen Frank Zarb and Ronald Stack at times threw back such unexplained projections when submitted by County Executives Thomas Gulotta, a Republican, or by Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat.

“The NIFA I always knew over the years would have asked for more specific identification of these figures they are giving out. Anyone can throw out numbers. The work is behind the numbers, how to back it up. I don’t see anything that shows me how they’re getting there,” says Legis. Judith Jacobs (D-Woodbury), who lobbied for the creation of NIFA in 2000 after a 1999 budget crisis.

She pointed to a line that reads “Lower than expected caseload in Early intervention/pre school education” that is supposed to result in a $5 million savings. “What are they talking about?” Jacobs asked. “I believe every one of these [items] should have an explanation of what they’re basing it on. The devil is in the details.”

Barsky could not be reached for comment. But NIFA General Counsel Jeremy Wise said, “The report that we received from the county was the result of numerous discussions with the county.”

Asked how NIFA could have accepted the plan without a public vote, Wise added, “NIFA has not officially accepted the report. NIFA can only act pursuant to a properly constituted board meeting.”

Deputy County Executive Ed Ward acknowledged that previous NIFA chairmen had thrown back spending plans. “That’s true in the past,” he said. “But as a result of a better working relationship, both NIFA and the administration have been developing the plan together. There is no reason to submit something that is going to be kicked back immediately.”

Eric Naughton, Mangano’s deputy for finance, said his office has been working with NIFA for the past four weeks. “We wanted to make sure that everything we put in our formal submission they agreed was credible.”

As for explaining each item, “we didn’t feel it was necessary,” Naughton said. “They had all the detailed information.”

Regarding utility savings, for example, Naughton said, “when NIFA looks at our submission, they look at what we have spent so far and say, ‘You’re right. You will spend less on utilities.’ Anyone can take a look at the current fuel prices and say, ‘Yes, there are surplus funds there.’”

“For the board, its better to get summary information,” Naughton said. “If they require more, they can inquire from their staff.”

NIFA members last week received a staff memo explaining the county’s numbers.

But Jacobs said, “The county has to explain. When they’re offering numbers, the county should be the one explaining what they mean. I don’t see how anybody could accept this without proof of how they got to it.”

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