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Editorial: Maragos must tell fiscal truth

Nassau Comptroller George Maragos. (March 28, 2011)

Nassau Comptroller George Maragos. (March 28, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

During his successful 2009 campaign for Nassau County Comptroller, challenger George Maragos said this about incumbent Howard Weitzman: "He has failed in his duty to protect the taxpayer and to manage the budget and expenses of the county. He should have refused to sign off on higher debts and to using all of the county's reserves and to borrowing for current expenses, with payment deferred to future years."

Every charge he lobbed at Weitzman can be hurled at him. Weitzman, a Democrat, did go along with extensive borrowing and the ignoring of generally accepted accounting principles by then-County Executive and party-mate Thomas Suozzi. Maragos, a Republican, is doing the same in the service of his 2009 running mate, County Executive Edward Mangano.

If Maragos was right about Weitzman's mistakes, then he is wrong to emulate him. To distinguish himself, he needs to make the comptroller's office a strong force for prudent fiscal management.

The challenge Maragos needs to step up to is twofold, because the economic situation is both disastrous and confusing. Maragos needs use his fiscal expertise to clarify it for the taxpayers, and to apply political pressure, including that of the bully pulpit, to correct it.

Mangano can't borrow because the county legislature and the state control board overseeing Nassau's finances, each for its own disparate reasons, won't approve it. For months, the county has hinted that the 2011 books would be closed with a $40-million-plus deficit, a red flag for financial-rating agencies. So the county moved the money out of its contingency fund to cover that shortfall, but the ratings agencies are going to be just as critical. Nassau's recurring expenses have been for the past several years, and are projected to be for the next several years, at least $100 million per year more than its recurring revenue. That's what matters, accounting tricks aside.

A bookkeeping error uncovered just last week in the sewer fund made it unclear whether the actual 2011 deficit would be $43 million or $50 million or $36 million; county officials now say the last figure is right. And the closing of the 2011 books is going to be held up for 30 days because a retiree health insurance liability estimate for the county came in $300 million lower than last year's estimate. The difference persuaded officials to get a new expert to recheck those figures.

Meanwhile, Maragos, able to give the job his undivided attention after failing to win the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, has made it sound like the Nassau Interim Finance Authority is being difficult because it won't let Mangano borrow the money for property tax refunds. Maragos says NIFA let Suozzi do it, but is now denying Mangano the same tool.

But Maragos isn't mentioning the $90 million in revenue Mangano hasn't had to work with in the last two years because Mangano led the campaign to abolish the county energy tax. And he isn't reminding anyone that he was screaming because NIFA let Suozzi borrow that money, and Weitzman did nothing to fight it.

Maragos shouldn't have such a short memory.