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State control board should demand a balanced Nassau County budget

Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance

Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, speaks with reporters following a public meeting in Uniondale on Thursday evening, June 30, 2016. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Nassau County legislators now have Nassau Interim Finance Authority chairman Adam Barsky so bamboozled about the county’s disastrous books that the two entities have devolved to arguing over which poorly thought-out and likely fictional revenue source to include in the budget. For the moment they have forgone discussion of real revenue streams and sensible spending cuts almost entirely.

The legislature meets in Mineola today with 2017’s county budget still partially unfunded. County Executive Edward Mangano sent legislators a $2.98 billion budget that included $66 million from new $105 administrative fees on all parking and traffic tickets, but Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves refused on Oct. 31 to approve the new fees. Last week, she announced that majority legislators would allow only about $30 million of those fees to be implemented in today’s vote, eliminating the fee on parking tickets and cutting it to $55 on traffic tickets.

Gonsalves says her plan will replace the needed funds with money from businesses which, under an amnesty deal, would pay only partial fines for not reporting their income and expenses as required by law — a statue that has been challenged in court. Last week, Barsky told legislators in a letter that a budget that relies on this $36 million from the Income and Expense Law would be rejected, sent back for speedy modification, and if acceptable changes aren’t made, will see NIFA cut that $36 million from the spending plan. Barsky is right to think that money promised by Gonsalves can’t be counted on. But the money from the $105 fee it replaced can’t be counted on either, because it can be legally challenged on at least two counts:

Administrative fees, by law, are supposed to reflect administrative costs. The $105 charges are clearly meant to fill a revenue hole, not pay for the handling of the tickets themselves. Mangano says the money raised will pay for the hiring of almost 250 police officers and civilian employees. And therein lies another legal problem: Using the fee revenue, which should go to the county’s general fund, to pay for new police disenfranchises county residents who live in villages with their own forces.

For all the hand-wringing about Nassau deficits, the problems are still more about politicians worried about the next election than solving a fiscal dilemma. It’s true that the county police contract is too expensive and that the county guarantee on property tax assessments is an unreasonable drain. Both need to be addressed, but Nassau’s consistent structural deficit, which generally hovers around $100 million annually, could be eliminated. Spending cuts of 1.7 percent annually for two years would do the trick, or spending cuts of 1 percent and property tax increases of 2 percent annually for two years.

As a state control board, NIFA has the power to force the county into a balanced budget, but Barsky and his predecessor, Jon Kaiman, have been hesitant to grab the reins of government from its elected officials. Now, though, NIFA must grab those reins because the budget, which could be steadied under a firm hand, is headed toward a cliff.

— The editorial board


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