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Opinion

Editorial: Nassau's long financial winter goes on

Nassau County can't freeze wages forever.

Nassau County can't freeze wages forever. Credit: iStock

Nassau County can't claim a fiscal emergency forever. Eventually, it must find the cash to pay workers the raises they were promised, or reach new labor agreements.

It's been three years since the Nassau Interim Finance Authority took the fiscal reins from County Executive Edward Mangano by declaring a control period and freezing the wages of unionized workers. The county had an annual deficit of at least $100 million, and since then, the out-of-balance nature of the county's books hasn't improved much.

Those suffering most dramatically from the freeze are police officers, particularly those low on an eight-step scale that can take their annual base pay from $34,000 to $108,000. Police Benevolent Association president James Carver has been fighting to renegotiate the contract since the freeze started, with the support of Mangano, but hasn't come close to getting one past NIFA. Now another hard sell is on.

NIFA wants concessions on pensions, health care contributions, wage scales and work rules to make up for the costs of lifting the freeze, a standard that proposed deals have never sniffed.

But the unions claim the freeze is illegal. Thus far, their view hasn't won the day. But eventually their strongest argument will prevail: The county could have balanced its books and lifted the freeze. Mangano either is ineffective or simply chose not to do so.

Mangano and Comptroller George Maragos have undercut NIFA. Their untrue protestations that the budget is in surplus (because they count borrowed money as revenue and don't acknowledge big assessment repayment bills) don't help the county's argument that it can't pay. Neither do the raises Mangano gave nonunion employees.

 

The unions can argue Mangano has refused to increase revenue by not hiking taxes, at least up to the 2 percent cap. Had he done so each year, annual revenue would be about $70 million higher now. They can argue that Mangano could have reinstated the home energy tax that brought in $45 million a year. They can argue that he failed to fix a property tax assessment system that costs the county about $80 million a year in refunds.

Through 2013, the wage freeze had saved Nassau $230 million. If continued, it will save $80 million in 2014, and the number grows each year as contracted raises are not awarded.

Now a new negotiation on the county's union contracts is surfacing, pushed hard by Jon Kaiman, the new NIFA head appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to get a deal. The details are murky, and the assumptions about new streams of cash are dubious.

One assumption is that 56 new cameras to catch speeders in school zones could raise $32 million a year to pay cops and other workers. That's based on the idea that the speed limit during the school day would be 20 mph, each camera would issue 64 tickets a day at $50 a pop, the collection rate would be 100 percent and drivers would never learn to slow down. It's also double-booking of revenue, because those cameras are already part of the county's multiyear financial plan, albeit at a more realistic $8 million to $12 million a year.

And even if those cameras could bring in that kind of money eventually, they certainly couldn't in fiscal 2014, since they don't yet exist. A gift to Nassau and Suffolk from Cuomo, they are in the proposed state budget that is not likely to pass before April 1. Still, Kaiman wants a deal by March 14, the deadline for NIFA to renew the wage freeze for 2014. It's an artificial mark: NIFA could lift that freeze anytime thereafter.

 

A deal is needed, and the wage freeze must be lifted. The county needs to hire hundreds of cops to replace retirees, ideally under a new contract that puts them in the most recent pension tier and forces them to contribute to their health care. But the deal doesn't need to be rushed into place to satisfy political expediency, based on spurious assumptions and a lack of rigorous analysis. Right now it seems no one is standing up for the taxpayer.

Doing deals that way destroyed the finances of one of the richest and most highly taxed counties in the nation in the first place.

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