The ballots weren't even cold last week for the losing Coliseum referendum before the sniping started in Nassau County. The fiscal control board overseeing the financially challenged county issued a surprisingly sharp statement telling the administration to get back to work on its unbalanced budget. Predictably, the county responded with its usual take-no-hostages approach, denouncing the control board and accusing it of wanting to raise taxes.
This behavior is not going to get the job done.
The paralyzing debt ceiling debate in Washington, which earned lawmakers a national vote of no confidence, should be a teaching moment. Three major polls now put Congress' approval rating in the teens, an all-time low. It hasn't gotten that bad here, but a recent Newsday poll of Nassau residents has already found that 58 percent of them think the county is headed in the wrong direction.
As in Washington, Nassau's money problems are serious and structural; clearly the public is in no mood for nonsense. There's an expected shortfall of at least $100 million for this year, and it gets worse for the next one, when the gap is projected to be $225 million. Getting the county back on track will take trust, cooperation, enlightened thinking and sacrifice. Threats, name-calling and gamesmanship are a losing strategy.
Mangano and his team, who unsuccessfully sought permission from Albany to raise the sales tax and whose soundly rejected referendum would have amounted to an average 4 percent property tax increase, aren't going to convince anyone with their bluster that it's the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority that wants to wants to raise taxes. The county, which also denied it had a deficit, sued to stop NIFA's takeover. Now it's claiming that NIFA is over-budget because it hired lawyers and accountants to respond to the county's actions.
So right now, the cooperation gap is as large as the financial one. Mangano submitted a multiyear plan that NIFA immediately rejected, saying the panel's enabling statute would not allow borrowing to pay for tax assessment refunds or the sale of a county waste-treatment plant to count as revenue. The control board then demanded the administration present a balanced budget or face "specific orders to do so." Under the NIFA statute, an elected official who doesn't follow the "orders" faces suspension, removal from office or conviction of a misdemeanor.
Surely NIFA knows that putting Mangano in the stocks isn't a solution.
Mangano has at least made one smart move to break this stalemate: acknowledging he needs help. He has hired, at $24,500 -- just short of a price tag that requires NIFA's approval -- a consulting team of veteran finance director Abe Lackman -- former New York City budget director under Rudy Giuliani -- and Albany-based communications strategist John McArdle. Their hiring at the urging of Sen. Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre shows the deep concern of the GOP statewide. Now Mangano needs to listen to the tough advice of the widely respected Lackman and allow McArdle to demonstrate how mature spokesmen craft a public message.
The 2012 budget is due in just over a month. Only honest numbers, not angry words, will do. N>hN