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Nassau out $108 million in fees due to pandemic, comptroller says

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman on Jan. 30,

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman on Jan. 30, 2019, in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County is projected to lose $108.3 million in revenue from fees and fines this year, according to a new comptroller's report, as officials grapple with a $385 million budget shortfall in 2020 and a credit rating downgrade issued Friday.

The county is expected to lose $65.3 million in NICE bus service fees and county clerk's office fees to verify maps for real property recordings, and $43 million from fees and fines for red-light camera violations and parking tickets, the report by Comptroller Jack Schnirman said.

In Suffolk, projected losses from fees and fines total $99 million, including a $6.7 million shortfall from the red-light camera program, officials said.

"From top to bottom, COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on our revenues across the board," Schnirman said.

"Looking ahead at the second half of 2020, the question becomes, 'What if there's another shutdown?'" he said.

On Friday, the Wall Street rating agency Fitch Group downgraded Nassau's credit outlook to negative, citing the pandemic's economic damage. But it maintained the county's A rating while commending the Curran administration's $130 million surplus in 2019.

Fitch last week also revised the United States’ credit outlook, or its ability to repay debt, to negative, again citing the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

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The reports came in advance of a legislative budget hearing scheduled for Monday in Mineola. Lawmakers are expected to hear testimony from budget officials in the administration of County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, and representatives from the county's outside financial adviser, PFM, which is based in Holbrook.

Earlier this week, Republican county legislators subpoenaed the Curran administration for budget documents, and directed administration officials to answer questions about how to close the 2020 budget hole.

GOP lawmakers had balked at an earlier strategy of Curran's to borrow money through the county's financial control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.

“We are taking aggressive actions to address the unprecedented budget gap of almost $400 million this year, and we are calling for federal aid to support the county during the pandemic," Deputy County Executive of Finance Raymond Orlando said Friday.

"We will continue the prudent financial management practices which enable the county to provide the services that our residents, businesses and taxpayers demand and deserve,” Orlando said.

Republican legislative spokesman Christopher Boyle said the majority caucus would, "analyze the report put out by Comptroller Schnirman. Legislators look forward to receiving a broader picture of the financial condition of the county, and the options the county has at its disposal to make up for lost revenue at our budget hearing this upcoming Monday." 

Curran budget officials plan to present a new financial strategy that avoids additional borrowing in 2020 through NIFA to address Nassau's $385 million budget shortfall this year.

The key element of the plan is the deferral for one year of a $75 million payment, due in November, on bonds issued in 2008 through NIFA. The state-appointed agency oversees county finances and often can borrow money at lower interest rates than the county.

Republicans have vocally opposed to extension of NIFA's authority over county finances. Any borrowing would need approval by the Legislature, where Republicans hold an 11-8 majority.

The $108.3 million in lost fee and fine revenues represents about a third of the budget gap caused by the pandemic, Schnirman said.

Other deficit contributors include a projected $238.8 million loss of sales tax revenues, $52 million in lost state aid and $15.2 million less from Nassau Off-Track Betting Corp. terminals due to the shutdown of gaming in the state, according to Schnirman's report.

PROJECTED FEE LOSSES IN NASSAU

$65.3 million less in fees from NICE bus rider fares and services such as mapping for real property records.

$43 million less in public safety fees from parking tickets and red-light camera fines.

Source: Nassau County Comptroller's midyear report

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