For anyone trying to follow Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's multiple attempts to balance his budget, the process has become as dizzying as a carnival ride.
The county is facing a cash crunch, and last Monday, Mangano announced a plan to cut 200 jobs, about half through attrition, and $19 million in public works projects. Then, a couple of days later, he announced he would offer unpaid furloughs to county employees looking for time off. It's a way, he hopes, to avoid the layoffs he had just said he would order. County employees, police officers excluded, will be eligible to take off as many as 60 unpaid days per year, with a maximum of 20 consecutively, if superiors approve.
Mangano also proposed new or higher fees a couple of weeks ago: bigger penalties for false alarms from home and business security systems, higher fees to process traffic violations, register ATMs, obtain home improvement licenses and taxi licenses, and register as a county vendor. Among those charges was a new $7,500 fee for medical transportation by helicopter.
The county provided no estimate of how much the fees might raise, but these efforts are down to earth compared to Mangano's other efforts: the mind-boggling sewer privatization deal, endless efforts to identify a developer to come up with a plan for a new Coliseum, and the court fight in which Mangano is pursuing a doubtful strategy to unilaterally alter Nassau's union contracts.
To be fair, neither the county's Democratic legislators nor the state control board overseeing the county's finances will let Mangano borrow money to pay property-tax refunds -- a bind no other county executive had to face. But the intransigence of the Democrats and the Nassau Interim Finance Authority could be the best thing that ever happened if it forces Mangano to address Nassau's financial problems by balancing revenue and expenses, rather than borrowing. Still, he must pick a sensible plan and execute it, ending the constant shifts in direction.
Mangano has two problems: In the short and medium term, cash is very tight. In the long term, the county has been spending so much more than it brings in that payments on its debt are now about $330 million per year. To slow or reverse that trend, Mangano must both deliver on his promise to end tax certiorari payments to schools and municipalities by settling assessment battles before the property taxes are paid, and cut county spending to the bone.
He's right to raise some fees, lay off some workers and offer optional furloughs. Friday, it was announced that the police department will eliminate its 10-officer motorcycle platoon, reassigning those cops to the Highway Patrol Bureau to cut down on that unit's overtime. The department's Marine Bureau will also see significant cuts. All these measures should be implemented immediately, and would have served even better if they'd been put in place two years ago. Fixing the finances of Nassau County is immensely difficult work that's going to enrage unions, politicians and some voters, yet it's the only solution. Mangano now seems serious about pursuing it. But beyond being serious, he's going to have to be focused and consistent. If he can't do it, this carnival ride will quickly turn into a fiscal house of horrors.