In 2000, with Nassau County facing $3 billion in debt and a huge annual budget shortfall, then-Gov. George Pataki created the Nassau Interim Finance Authority to oversee the county’s books. That oversight, along with a $100 million bailout from the state, was supposed to set things right.
Now, 18 years later, newly elected Democrat Laura Curran is set to become county executive. She’ll face a debt that has grown to $4 billion, including unpaid property tax refunds, and a budget shortfall. She also has obstacles with the expiration of every major county union contract the day she takes office, and her own pledge not to raise taxes or hike fees gratuitously.
And she has NIFA, the control board that was supposed to be a temporary overseer of county finances and has instead become a seemingly permanent, often impotent enabler.
With six weeks before Curran takes office, the $3 billion budget that was legally supposed to be approved by Nov. 1 is still up in the air. NIFA says the current version does not balance because at least $30 million in revenues the budget promises aren’t legitimate. NIFA is demanding a balanced version by Nov. 27. County Executive Edward Mangano has pretty much checked out of the process.
The $30 million deficit is a problem, but it’s a relatively manageable one considering that Mangano had $150 million annual deficits in his first few years in office. The county, prodded by a increasingly tough NIFA board, reduced the employee head count, enacted some fee increases and saw sales tax revenues bounce back.
With the transition coming, NIFA would likely accept a plan that identifies departments or programs where spending will be cut and promises specific changes within 90 days. If the Republican-controlled legislature and Curran could agree on such an outline, leaving her room to craft the details after being sworn in, such bipartisan teamwork would be a good start and good optics.
Those optics, and that unity, will be crucial as she takes on the union contracts, which is the most important task she faces. In 2011, NIFA imposed a wage freeze, saving the county about $250 million. It was lifted in 2014 thanks to heavy political pressure. But a new freeze is possible. As long as they believe NIFA is willing to impose a freeze, savvy labor leaders know that demanding too sweet a deal is just a ticket to an immediate pay freeze, whether the raises come from an arbitrator or Curran.
County employees deserve fair pay and benefits. But if they want raises, police officers have to be willing to come to an agreement the county can afford by giving on work rules and other contract terms.
The terms of all seven NIFA board members expire on Jan. 1, but most are willing to stay on if reappointed. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo controls the majority of the seats, and his desires can set NIFA’s tone.
Cuomo, NIFA, Curran and the legislature need to be unshakably firm and unified if Nassau County is going to regain its financial footing, negotiate contracts that are fair to taxpayers, end the NIFA control period and perhaps even end NIFA all together.