Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty speaks during a debate between the...

Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty speaks during a debate between the four Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania governor in Harrisburg, Pa. (Jan. 29, 2010) Credit: AP

You can see Scranton from here.

Long Island hasn't reached Scranton's position yet, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and all but out of cash, but Nassau and Suffolk counties -- though on different roads -- are heading toward it. Which means they're moving in the wrong direction.

Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, overseeing a municipality that was down to its last $5,000 in cash recently, decided every city employee, himself included, would be paid $7.25 an hour until the city got back on its financial feet. It wasn't a pay cut exactly, because Doherty promised the back pay that accrued would go to workers someday. Several of the unions that represent the city's workers sought an injunction against him, demanding he cut the checks employees are contractually entitled to. The unions won in court. But last Friday, Doherty issued the short paychecks anyway.

The city is broke. The banks won't lend to it, and the city council refused to raise taxes enough -- Doherty asked for a 78 percent hike -- to either refill the coffers or convince the banks to open their purse strings. The unions won't give back enough to make the numbers work.

Doherty is likely angling to put the city into bankruptcy by proving, in a very public and dramatic fashion, that Scranton can't pay its bills. Once he gets to bankruptcy court, his contracts with the unions are essentially void.

Nassau County isn't as broke as Scranton, which has seen its industries and young people spirited away for decades. Nassau is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, based on the income and assets of its residents, and as long as it has a state control board it will never be able to wield the tool of bankruptcy. But year after year of borrowing to repay property-tax revenue that went to other government entities when Nassau's assessment system overcharged owners has left the county with billions of dollars in debt. County Executive Edward Mangano nixed a $45 million annual energy tax when he took office. The people won't stand for a property-tax increase, and it costs as much as $200,000 a year to put a police officer on the street. Take that all into account, and Scranton begins to shimmer in the distance.

Suffolk, with hundreds of millions of dollars in structural deficits of its own looming, actually might have the ability to declare bankruptcy should it come to that, since it has no control board. But can the ability to declare bankruptcy really be good news? This county is also wealthy, but it's burdened with high labor costs, high taxes, and a difficult path toward long-term solvency.

Neither Nassau nor Suffolk has the excuses Scranton does, nor those of Harrisburg or other bankrupt municipalities like Stockton and San Bernardino in California. The Long Island counties are largely powered by the world's greatest economic engine, New York City, and they've brought their fate upon themselves.

Long Island needn't end up where these other, utterly broke governments have. But if Nassau and Suffolk aren't going to wind up there, both are going to have to find new paths to follow -- and get off the road to Scranton.


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