Written by Howard Weitzman Thursday, 19 September 2013 00:00
Editor’s note: This is a response to Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos’s “County Financial Report Card,” published in the Enterprise Pilot Sept. 11-17. Howard Weitzman is running on the Democratic line against Maragos in the November election.
George Maragos continues to mislead the public by falsely claiming that the county’s financial condition has improved on his watch. During Mr. Maragos’s tenure as Nassau County’s fiscal watchdog, the county has undergone three bond downgrades by the credit rating agencies, the county’s fiscal outlook has been lowered from “stable” to “negative,” and the county’s debt has reached a new all-time high. No amount of “cooking the books” and issuing misleading financial statements and press releases can hide this truth, a truth which can be easily verified by outside sources.
As a Certified Public Accountant and former Nassau County Comptroller, I can see through the blatant attempts by Maragos to cook the books to produce the result he wants instead of the result that is truthful. The problem is that voters are disillusioned by the back-and-fourth of political campaigns where one side makes one claim and the other side counters with the opposite take. If voters don’t know who to believe, they should look at what independent, outside sources have to say about the county’s finances.
If the county’s finances are so rosy, then why did the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) have to impose tough oversight on the county’s finances? Ronald Stack, the chairman of NIFA remarked at a July 2013 meeting, “To the county officials who believe there is a surplus, would they please call me so I can hold an emergency meeting of the board so we can lift controls?” To date no one has called.
On Sept. 4, 2013 The Wall Street Journal published an investigative piece that highlighted how a controversial judge’s order sought by the Republican county attorney allowed the county to hide outstanding liabilities to turn its 2012 $45 million budgetary deficit into a surplus on paper. When pressed, the county attorney acknowledged that he “knew it would affect the budget.”
The editorial board of Newsday published a piece on June 12, 2013 with the headline, “Don’t buy Nassau’s financial window dressing.” In the editorial, Maragos was skewered when the editorial board stated, “…while the surplus is a fiction, the county’s financial woes are all too real. In the real world, and according to generally accepted accounting principles, the county had an $85-million deficit last year.”
Even if you don’t trust the collective wisdom of the chairman of NIFA, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsday, take a moment to consider what George Marlin, the 2009 chairman of Conservatives for Ed Mangano and a NIFA Board member had to say. Marlin said, “The County Comptroller’s declaration that Nassau ended fiscal year 2012 with a “miraculous” surplus (as claimed by Maragos) was absurd. It was a mirage, not a miracle.” Marlin continued, “Let’s face it, the County has forfeited its credibility when it comes to fiscal matters”
Maragos claims that the growing liability for property tax refunds has been addressed is totally unsupported. Just this week, on Sept. 8, 2013, Newsday reported that claims for refunds have reached an all-time high. The county policy of freezing home values in a declining housing market has made the problem worse. And granting 90 percent of the challenges have transferred the County’s liability to the backs of taxpayers.
Politics can be a tough business where people levy accusations back and forth to gain electoral advantage. The sad truth is that our county is in deep financial distress and instead of seeking solutions, people like George Maragos distort the truth and refuse to even acknowledge that a problem exists. It is necessary to restore confidence in the county’s financial reports before we begin the task of repairing the county’s finances.