Editorial: A financial test for Blakeman, GOP legislators

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Editorial: A financial test for Blakeman, GOP legislators

Bruce Blakeman has not even taken office as county executive, but Nassau Interim Financial Authority Chairman Adam Barsky has already issued a warning to him.

Don’t cut county fees now that County Executive Laura Curran has provided something not seen often in Nassau – a balanced budget. That was Barsky’s message.

His actual words were that he was concerned that county Republican legislators, with Blakeman’s backing, would move ahead with their proposal to cut or reduce various fees – a $350 tax map verification fee, a $55 public safety fee and a $300 recording fee.

This seems like a harsh message to greet a new county executive by the head of the state authority overseeing its finances. The question is: Was it warranted?

Republican legislators had approved the fee cuts in the midst of the county election campaign – without offering a way to pay for the $100 million hole it would create in the budget.

This apparently is good politics in Nassau County if not good governance.

Not that cutting the fees was a bad idea.

The fees were an unfair and counterproductive way for the county to raise money 10 years ago when they were approved by Republicans to avoid raising taxes. GOP officials routinely run their campaigns on not having raised county taxes.

Blakeman said in an interview with Blank Slate Media after his election that he wanted to take a “middle ground” approach when it comes to those fees, saying he would work with the Legislature to see what makes the most sense for the county and its taxpayers.

We hope so, but Blakeman’s history and the history of Nassau Republicans offer reasons for concern.

The last time Blakeman served in county government was in the 1990s when he was the presiding officer of the Legislature and Republican Tom Gulotta was county executive.

Things did not go well. The county, one of the wealthiest in New York state, became financially insolvent in 1999 and went hat in hand to the state for a bailout.

The county got $100 million in state aid and the authority to borrow $400 million more. In exchange, the country’s finances were placed under state supervision in the form of NIFA by then Gov. George Pataki, a Republican.

Blakeman, who agreed to increase taxes to fill the deficit at the time, lost re-election, as did a majority of the Republicans in the Legislature, and Gulotta chose not to run for another four-year term.

One major question for Nassau residents is what lessons Blakeman learned from his time in the County Legislature. Other county Republicans did not appear to learn much.

After he was elected county executive in 2001, Democrat Tom Suozzi worked with NIFA to balance the budget by raising taxes and holding down spending.

But after Suozzi’s eight years in office came Edward Mangano, a Republican now awaiting sentencing on political corruption charges.

Mangano repeatedly demonstrated his ignorance of basic government accounting and repeatedly rejected NIFA’s warnings that he was running deficits.

NIFA responded in 2011 by voting unanimously to declare a control period on a projected deficit for fiscal year 2011 of $176 million that effectively gave the state authority control over Nassau’s budget.

As the approval of the county fees shows, Republicans have done whatever they could to avoid raising taxes – or cutting expenses – to fulfill their duty to balance the county budget. Usually with budget gimmicks or one-time bailouts

Then state Sen. Jack Martins was the author of one of Nassau’s most imaginative bailouts in 2013 when he succeeded in inserting a provision in legislation that allowed Nassau to “transfer” its rights to operate a video-slot-machine parlor to Aqueduct Racetrack for $43 million over three years. In other words, something for nothing.

As late as 2020, under Curran, NIFA agreed to help balance Nassau’s 2021 budget by using its better credit rating to refinance the county’s debt over the next 15 years.

Barsky said at the time the state authority’s assistance would allow Nassau to “avoid a massive property tax increase and cuts to critical services for those most in need.”

Blakeman said he believes Nassau County should not need NIFA, but touted the work of Barsky and said he looks forward to working with them.

Barsky told Newsday he intends to work with Blakeman “with a lot of respect” and said Nassau is in “relatively good shape based on one-time resources” coming from the federal government due to the coronavirus pandemic and refinancing debt.

Blakeman also said he is working with legislators to address issues that can help relieve some of the fiscal stress on county taxpayers.

“I am working closely with the County Legislature on a variety of pressing issues and look forward to solving issues important to our taxpayers,” he said.

Curran said under the $3.5 billion budget she developed property taxes will be cut by $70 million next year and $128 million in surplus funds from the 2020 budget will be used to “grow depleted reserves” for whenever the county experiences the “next downturn.”

There are ways for Blakeman to improve the county’s finances without raising taxes, additional federal money or resorting to magical thinking.

A group of government experts said in a Blank Slate Media town hall that as far back as 2011 a detailed financial plan developed at NIFA’s behest offered a number of ways for the county to cut expenses and raise revenues.

But up until now, the suggestions have fallen on deaf ears.

We hope Blakeman learned the right lessons from Nassau County’s financial meltdown in 2000 and the years of financial gimmicks and one-time rescues that followed.

How he addresses the cuts to county fees will be a good indicator of where Nassau is headed.

 

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