Written by Matthew A. Piacentini Friday, 24 September 2010 00:00
This week, Nassau County Legislators and other officials have begun to look into the hard copy of the 2011 budget that was proposed last Wednesday by County Executive Edward P. Mangano, which he said was designed to deliver no property tax increases while also addressing a budget gap of over $340 million.
As the specifics are explored this week, and the debate begins to play out, his detractors remain skeptical about how realistic the plan is, relying on union concessions that might not work. Critics also accuse that the proposal simply takes costs out of the county budget that taxpayers will simply have to pay through higher school and local taxes. Finally mass transit advocates say the budget turns its back on the negotiations with the MTA that might have kept Long Island from losing bus service.
No one seems to be arguing that the county is in good financial shape. It is common knowledge that the watchdog organization NIFA was created in 2000 to monitor Nassau’s ongoing financial trouble. For years taxpayers have been hearing officials spar over issues like growing debt and bloated departments, salaries and benefits. Mangano said he is attempting to face the “fiscal mess head on,” claiming that his proposal has “cut spending, eliminated waste, consolidated services, and reined in unaffordable labor contracts negotiated by the prior administration.”
In terms of payroll and benefits, Mangano presented that “the costs associated with Nassau County’s public workforce continued to grow in 2010 because of skyrocketing pension contributions, soaring health insurance expenses for both active and retired public employees and other contractual obligations. From 2007 to 2015, the total costs derived from labor contracts exceed the Consumer Price Index by over $500 million.”
To address this, the county executive said his proposal would cut employees to the lowest level since the 1950s, slashing the headcount by over 400 positions, including $1 million in the office of the county executive. He added that his plan consolidates departments and administrators and “right-sizes” the police administration.
Mangano’s office told Anton Community Newspapers that there are no mass layoffs in the works. Retirement incentives, for one, are expected to be useful in shedding employees and many of the staff cuts in the proposal simply involve leaving vacant positions unfilled.
The plan is also calling for unions to make concessions in an attempt to rein in what Mangano called, “unaffordable labor contracts negotiated by the prior administration,” involving “empty promises” made “with reckless disregard for taxpayers’ ability to pay.”
He added, “We must realistically live within our means and cannot spend what taxpayers do not have. Nassau County has dedicated employees that are working even harder to deliver services. Once again, I ask them to share in the sacrifices needed to fix Nassau’s finances and to understand that taxpayers simply cannot afford to pay contracts that were entered into without considering residents’ ability to pay.”
To accomplish this, the county executive has introduced the Taxpayer Relief Act of 2010 to the county Legislature. This would give him the authority to seek new negotiations with unions. Nassau County Legislature Minority Leader Diane Yatauro, who had several points of contention with the proposal, singled this out, saying, “His most unusual move is to gain power from the legislature to bust union contracts. This will embroil the county in a long legal debate.”
On another note, a major piece of the county executive’s plan involves saving $80 million a year in debt coming from the property tax assessment system. When taxpayers are overcharged and overpay on their tax bill, the county, which does assessments and approves the amount to be refunded in the event of an overcharge, has guaranteed that repayment. The new plan appears to stick that cost onto other bodies, like schools and towns.
Mixed responses have come in on this move. Critics accuse that this does not truly lower taxes, it just moves taxes into other budgets, outside of the county’s.
“This is a savings to the county, not to the county taxpayer,” said Jay L. T. Breakstone, president of the Nassau Suffolk School Board Association. “The individual taxpayer doesn’t vote on the county budget but school budgets are voted on directly by taxpayers in districts. So they will see exactly what the county executive did. They will understand: ‘One way or the other I pay this. Whether I pay it in county taxes where I don’t see it, or in school taxes where I do see it.’”
The school advocate added, “If the county can pass a bill that says you have to pay their costs, why can’t we pass a bill that says they have to pay our school costs. Districts in Nassau could make their budgets look a lot better if they made the county pay part of it, like he is doing to the schools.”
Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman echoed the sentiment, saying, “I don’t think it is appropriate to ask the towns and the schools to cover the costs of overcharges when it is the county that sets the original amount owed and then makes the determination on whether to grant the tax reduction. If they get it right the first time, then there is no additional money to be paid. The bottom line is that it is simply not fair for the county to make the decisions while the local governments and the schools pick up the bill.”
Legislator Yatauro emphasized the idea that this move will make other taxes go up, saying “[Mangano] proposes ending the long-held policy of refunding excess collected taxes to school districts and municipalities. This would force these jurisdictions to raise our taxes.”
Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto was more supportive. He said, “During these difficult economic times, everyone is going to have to work together to solve the county’s fiscal problems, which have been years in the making. This move by the county is going to place a burden on us. Having said that, we’re all residents of the county, and if this will help the county get on sound financial footing, we’re willing to do our part.”
A separate cost-cutting measure that is raising some ire involves the MTA. No one’s favorite group right now, the MTA has drawn major criticism for large budgets and salaries accompanied by cuts in service. As it works to lower its own deficit, the MTA has asked Nassau to fund its bus service. In an ongoing battle, the county executive has refused, saying he will privatize the bus system if he has to.
Mass transit advocates, like the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, have been working in the middle, hoping to achieve some compromise in which the county raises its contribution to bus service and the MTA does not cut it out totally. They say Mangano’s 2011 proposal will kill that effort, leaving the area without buses.
Ryan Lynch, senior partner at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign is calling the 2011 county budget “another disappointment for Long Island Bus Riders.” He said, “Faced with a proposed cut of $26 million from the MTA, the county’s proposal to continue to fund its system at 2010 levels ($9.1 million) falls short of what is needed for robust transit service. LI Bus is one of the nation’s largest suburban bus systems, but county funding is at its lowest point in a decade. We call upon County Executive Mangano and the Nassau County Legislature to rethink this proposal and work with the MTA to find a funding solution that is balanced and one that will provide LI Bus’ over 100,000 daily riders with the quality, affordable and reliable bus service they deserve.”
A final point of contention comes from legislators who fear some of the changes the county executive is seeking to make can be done without state approval. They fear the time it will take for this to occur will leave the county in a bad position.
Legislator Yatauro warned, “There is much in this budget that requires state approval. The county executive claims to be meeting our problems head-on. I wonder if this budget draws us into a head-on collision.”
All of the contested cost-cutting efforts in Mangano’s 2011 budget are aimed first, at keeping the county finances in control and second, keeping those finances under the control of the county itself. Critics fear that the state agency NIFA will step in and take over if Mangano’s plan to do this is not feasible. If the county’s deficit goes over 1 percent of its budget, this will take place. As the debate unfolds, taxpayers will see if the $343 million gap can be closed without raising taxes or borrowing, and if opposition from unions or the state make it impossible for the county executive to realize his plan.