The title of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's newly released budget is "2016 Property Tax Freeze Credit Proposed Budget." That mind-numbing name says as much about this process as the numbers do. Politics and perception are served up in the document, but a balance of revenue and spending is not.
The property tax isn't frozen, but will increase 1.2 percent. Last year it went up 3.4 percent. The state will refund most homeowners the amount of the increases because the county stayed under the tax cap, softening the blow. But under the rules of the rebate, taxpayers would get a refund even if there were no increase, so the hike is coming out of their pockets. And when the state's rebate plan ends in 2016, taxpayers will owe those increases perpetually as part of the tax base.
That's not to say Mangano was wrong to raise taxes: The county's problems make it clear he had to and some experts say he needed to raise them far more. Because even with this increase, his revenue plan is likely still $100 million short if all goes well, and $200 million short if it doesn't.
His $2.95 billion budget is banking on $20 million from a video-lottery parlor that has no location and no one willing to provide one. He's banking on the Nassau Interim Finance Authority permitting considerable borrowing, including $30 million for termination pay, something the state control board is unwilling to do. He's banking on the county legislature approving both his tax increase and significant fee increases for services like mortgage recording and tax map verification, actions lawmakers may not take with elections in less than two months. He's banking on sales tax revenue increasing, when that has not been the trend.
And it's not to say the county executive has made no effort to improve the financial picture since he took office in 2010. The county's total number of employees is down about 2,000. He ended $20 million a year in residential tax refunds. And he cut costs by privatizing the county bus service and eliminating the $13 million annual mission payment to Nassau University Medical Center, for better or worse.
Over the next few weeks, several budget assessments will be released, including NIFA's. They will highlight how dangerous this budget plan is. NIFA will almost certainly reject the budget, even if the legislature approves it. If Mangano does not alter it enough to at least approximate a balance, NIFA will take control of the county's finances. What's unclear is exactly what powers NIFA has once that happens.
The problems are ingrained. The astonishingly high $840 million budgeted for police, for example, is mostly contractually obligated. It's unclear what NIFA can do with existing contracts, and whether it has the power to raise taxes or other revenue. And the five-employee authority may need outside help to craft and execute a plan that brings the county's books into balance and debt exceeding $3.5 billion under control.
County revenue and expenses have to match up. The laws of the state and the rules of accounting demand it. NIFA has the power to make that happen. This is the budget that signals it's going to have to.