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Budget report: Nassau ended fiscal 2020 with $75 million surplus despite pandemic

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, seen in 2019,

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, seen in 2019, said of Tuesday of the current surplus: "By exercising fiscal discipline, and using all the tools available, Nassau County is in a strong position to recover from the pandemic." Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County ended fiscal year 2020 with a $75 million surplus, despite a decline in sales tax revenue and additional spending to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new budget report.

The unaudited report, released late Monday by the county's Office of Management and Budget, shows a sales tax revenue drop of 8%, compared with a 20% decline the administration of Nassau County Executive Laura Curran had forecast last year.

Sales tax receipts account for about 40% of the county's total revenue.

Budget officials said the preliminary surplus stemmed from a successful strategy to rein in spending, manage the county's personnel effectively and to estimate revenues conservatively.

"By exercising fiscal discipline, and using all the tools available, Nassau County is in a strong position to recover from the pandemic," Curran, a Democrat who is seeking reelection in November, said in a statement Tuesday.

Republicans who hold a majority on the county legislature said millions of surplus dollars could have been used to help residents and struggling businesses. Legislators announced a budget hearing for March 8 in Mineola.

"Throughout the second half of 2020, the Legislature was presented with phony budget projections," said Nassau County Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park). "The administration chose to keep the excess sales tax receipts instead of using it to help county residents and businesses through the pandemic."

Legis. C. William Gaylor III (R-Lynbrook) said, "Think about how many more Nassau residents could have gotten tested, or could have avoided financial hardship, had this money that has become surplus been used to help the people. This money should have been spent on our residents who continue to be devastated by this pandemic."

The county budget report comes as lawmakers in Congress debate President Joe Biden's inclusion of $350 billion to aid state and local governments in his $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill.

Republicans have criticized the aid for state and local governments as a no-strings-attached bailout of poorly managed municipalities, although the spending has some support among GOP governors and mayors.

Democrats point to higher costs and lower tax revenue for municipalities during the pandemic, and warn of dire fiscal times ahead without federal help.

Both Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, have advocated strongly for more money from the federal government, saying that cuts to programs and the loss of county jobs are unavoidable without significant federal aid.

Suffolk Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., a Republican, said sales tax revenues were higher than anticipated by the county even as the office has not yet finalized its audit of 2020 finances.

"We are not as dire as we originally thought we would be when we adopted this budget," Kennedy told Suffolk legislators on Tuesday.

The Nassau budget report is required by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county's financial control board, and is subject to revision when the county's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report is issued in June.

The estimated $75 million surplus for 2020 compares with reported surpluses of $112 million in 2019 and $15 million in 2018.

In 2017, the final year of Republican County Executive Edward Mangano's administration, Nassau County reported a $122 million deficit.

In January, the county — with Republican approval — refinanced up to $1.4 billion in existing county and NIFA debt in a bid to save $435 million over two years as it copes with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Legislative Republicans last fall questioned the necessity of the refinancing, projecting only a 12% decline in sales tax revenues.

With Rachelle Blidner

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