Nassau County fills $77M budget hole, possible cuts looming

The Nassau County Legislature on Monday approved measures to fill a $77 million budget hole despite threats from the county’s financial control board that they would not pass muster.

In a 12-7 party-line vote, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved an “amnesty” program reducing fines for business owners who do not report income and expense data to the county for their revenue-generating properties, which could raise at least $36 million.

That was a way to cover revenue lost by lowering County Executive Edward Mangano’s proposed traffic ticket surcharge to $55 from $105, now expected to raise about $28 million. The tickets will add $55 to the cost of any traffic violation but will now not apply to parking tickets.

Also approved Monday were several other new and increased fees expected to raise about $13 million.

The measures balance the $3 billion 2017 budget the Legislature approved Oct. 31 without about $77 million in revenue from dozens of new and additional fees Mangano, a Republican, proposed, but on which the legislators did not vote.

The vote came five days after legislative leaders received a letter from the Nassau Interim Finance Authority saying it would reject any budget plan that relied on fines from the income-and-expense law, which is being challenged in court.

Mangano on Monday submitted to NIFA a contingency plan for $36 million in spending cuts the county could impose to maintain “essential services” if the fines do not materialize.

“While suspension will be painful and cause disruption, it will allow the County to resume services upon receipt of revenue,” Eric Naughton, the deputy county executive for finance, wrote in a letter to NIFA.

Democratic legislators on Monday contended the fine revenue was a risky budget bandage that pushed the county toward another showdown with NIFA, endangering social programs such as youth services and bus routes.

“It’s shaky revenue, no matter how you slice it,” said Legislator Laura Curran, a Baldwin Democrat who is running for county executive.

If NIFA rejects the budget, Mangano’s administration plans to cut $15 million in unborrowed payments for property tax challenges; suspend $3.8 million in additional funding for Nassau Inter-County Express buses; provide only three months of youth services funding; suspend two community-policing programs; and suspend county aid to villages, among other cuts to county departments and contracts.

Mangano first proposed the $105 “public safety fee” as a traffic and parking ticket surchage to fund the hiring of 150 new police officers and 81 civilian police department personnel.

But it met criticism from Democrats and other groups as an unfair and unstable revenue measure. In a statement Monday, Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead) called it “an illegal motorist tax.”

The county is now seeking reduced fines owed by commercial property owners who did not report income and expenses related to their properties for 2013, 2014 and 2015, as required by a 2013 county law. The county prevailed when the law was challenged in state Supreme Court, but it is awaiting a hearing in state appellate court.

Republicans argued the revenue estimate was conservative and that there was nothing legally stopping the county from collecting the fines. They also criticized Democrats for not submitting any alternative budget proposals.

The law is intended to make the property tax assessment system more accurate, which GOP lawmakers and officials said would save money in the future.

“The effect of this would be simply to forgive part of it but to hurry it up, just in terms of the cash,” Legislator Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence) said.

But NIFA last week told legislative leaders any budget plan with that revenue would be immediately rejected and returned for “speedy modification.” The authority would subsequently reject all contracts and borrowing if the county does not follow its directives, its Nov. 16 letter says.

“The disagreement between NIFA and the Legislature on supporting revenue will be determined in January,” Mangano said in a statement. “Until that time, the administration’s suspension plan keeps services going while providing the Legislature an opportunity to prove its projection correct or take alternate action to avoid catastrophic cuts to important health, safety and welfare initiatives and mandates.”

NIFA rejected the Legislature’s adopted budget last year, similarly threatening to impose drastic spending cuts, a hiring freeze and stricter contract controls.

NIFA and the county eventually agreed to quarterly budget reviews to ensure spending and revenue targets were being met.

This year’s dispute follows Mangano’s indictment last month on federal corruption charges. He has pleaded not guilty and has refused to resign.

By Noah Manskar

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