At last, the fiscal powers in Nassau County are starting to row in the same direction.
The boat's still sinking, but the change in tone by County Executive Edward Mangano is a welcome one from that of resistance and litigation, especially with only nine months left to close a $176.5 million deficit. This fresh start, however, shouldn't be upended by a distracting and doomed lawsuit from the county's public employee unions.
The Nassau Interim Finance Authority's action Thursday stopping all scheduled wage hikes, including step increases and longevity bonuses, is the logical approach to trimming costs -- after all, employee compensation is close to 50 percent of the county's expenses. The freeze will hit all county workers but will have the biggest impact on the police and civil service unions.
It may be tough medicine, but NIFA has made its case. These employees are highly compensated compared to other municipal workers in the region and they have not had any prior salary reductions. Their contracts were negotiated with full awareness of NIFA's power to take control if the county's budget was out of balance by more than 1 percent. And the unions can't claim that NIFA's freeze usurps Mangano's authority, when he asked for it. Such a route to cut costs was also an integral part of Mangano's budget proposal back in September. He named it the "Taxpayer Relief Act," and asked the legislature to give him NIFA-like powers to declare a "fiscal emergency."
Still, the wage freeze closes only $10.5 million of a $176 million gap. Mangano has other plans on the table, but few are sure bets, either to happen or to deliver the expected savings. For instance, $17 million that is to come from planned furloughs and tens of millions more from 213 layoffs, redeployment of police and cutting social services are likely to hit a roadblock getting approval in the legislature. And the sudden claim that the liability from tax refunds will now be $30 million less than anticipated, especially with no noticeable improvement in the assessment system, raises concerns that new claims are being stuffed into a cardboard box for now.
As for expected revenue, $23 million from an expanded red-light camera program and a surcharge on traffic tickets require approval from Albany. That's always iffy. And soon after Mangano told NIFA that renting 500 jail cells to Suffolk for that county's inmate overflow was money in the bank -- it could be as much as $26 million -- the state Commission of Correction said conditions at the Nassau facility are so far below standards that it won't authorize any transfers. Proceeds from the sale of county land and leases is also speculative.
The uncertain outlook for 2011 only masks the uglier gap that may exceed $200 million in 2012. That's why the unions' refusal to propose any cuts for this year is a mistake. Postponing any cooperation this year only portends big layoffs for next.
Mangano has done what he can. Beyond the freeze, NIFA doesn't have the power to do much more. The other players sitting at the table are going to have to deal.