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NIFA should take control of Nassau County's budget

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano squares off in

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano squares off in a debate hosted by LIA in Woodbury against challenger Thomas Suozzi. (Oct. 29, 2013) Credit: Howard Schnapp

With their unanimous declaration that they will not support a property tax increase, Nassau County legislators have made it clear that the representatives elected to run this county are no longer capable of doing so. It's now time for the Nassau Interim Finance Authority to take control of county finances.

The $12 million that would have been raised by the 1.2 percent increase in 2016 is not make-or-break money to a county with a budget of nearly $3 billion. It's minimal. Four weeks before county legislative elections, the consequence of refusing to raise needed revenue is the problem.

Even with the 1.2 percent tax increase, the budget County Executive Edward Mangano submitted last month is a disastrous fiscal blueprint built with duct tape and chewing gum rather than prudent planning. Mangano's budget banks on huge fee increases on services such as mortgage recording and tax map preparation, tens of millions of dollars in borrowing NIFA says it won't approve, and $20 million from a video-lottery parlor that doesn't even have a proposed site, much less a physical existence.

Both Republican and Democratic legislators know this, but it's how they play the game. Last year, they rejected Mangano's 3.4 percent property tax hike and added budget amendments purporting to make up the $31 million that hike was projected to raise. But when NIFA balked at the amendments, Mangano vetoed them and legislators made no attempt to override his veto. The tax hike stood. Last year, though, wasn't an election year. With all 19 legislators publicly against the increase this time, they're bound to override Mangano's veto.

Democrats say they propose to make up the $12 million, an average of $23 per household, by cutting budget items, including outside legal contracts. Republican legislators, with a 12-7 majority, have not specified how they would make up the revenue. But every cut that can be found and every revenue bump that can be created is needed -- even if there were additional money from the tax increase.

A report by the accounting firm Grant Thornton in 2011 outlined the county's fiscal problems and suggested difficult ways to cut expenses. It's not surprising that such changes are difficult: Residents want services, employees want jobs and nobody wants higher taxes. Though he did make progress in cutting some costs, Mangano has never been able or willing to cut into the ingrained problems that keep Nassau's revenue and expenses way out of balance.

Now NIFA has to. And for the first time since its creation in 2000, the state control board is willing to do just that. NIFA chairman Jon Kaiman has said the board is ready to shut down all "nonessential spending" if the county doesn't present a budget the board can support.

NIFA needs to look back to the Grant Thornton report for its insights, hire a top-notch adviser to update the report, and then use it to make the tough choices, swiftly moving the county budget toward balance. NIFA has the legal justification and the ability to do so. The elected officials of Nassau County clearly do not.