County Legislature approves $3.56 billion budget

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The Nassau County Legislature approved County Executive Laura Curran’s proposed $3.56 billion 2020 budget on Oct. 28, on a vote of 17-2, two days before the Oct. 30 deadline. Republican legislators Steve Rhoads, of Bellmore, and William Gaylor III, of Lynbrook, voted against adoption. The Republican majority added $5.8 million for additions to the district attorney’s office, the Health Department, the Department of Public Works and the Probation Department. To offset these increases, they voted cuts in the same amount to the county attorney’s office and the Department of Information Technology.
Curran has 10 days to veto the budget. Otherwise, the approved budget, including the Republican amendments, will be forwarded to the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority (NIFA) for review and approval. NIFA is scheduled to meet on Nov. 21, when it is expected to take up the budget. “The Fiscal Year 2020 Nassau County Budget proposed today is in balance,” Curran wrote in her letter submitting the budget to Majority Leader and Presiding Officer Richard Nicollello, of New Hyde Park, and Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams, of Uniondale. The 2020 budget represents an increase of roughly $72 million, or 2 percent, over FY 2019. “We are continuing to exercise spending discipline while providing county residents with the quality services they demand and deserve,” she wrote. Personnel costs — salaries, wages, fringe benefits and pensions — continue to make up nearly half of the budget. Debt service accounts for nearly $400 million, or 11.5 percent, and transportation makes up an additional $180.6 million, or 5.1 percent. The budget included no property tax increase. In an earlier report, however, NIFA cautioned that the FY 2020 budget could result in as much as $47 million in deficits — more, if the county proceeds with a proposal to bond for some $200 million to pay past-due tax certiorari claims dating from 2017. A decision on the bond is expected by the end of the year. “Our analysis indicates that the county’s finances continue to have a mismatch between recurring revenues and expenditures,” NIFA officials wrote in their Oct. 15 report. “Although our assessment of risks in FY 2020 has improved by $14.4 million since our last report issued on Aug. 12, 2019, the mismatch could still lead to a year-end deficit of $47.5 million in FY 2020 and higher amounts in the out-years” from FY 2021 on. And while the 2020 budget does include the cost of debt service on the proposed borrowing, “deficits in FY 2020 or [beyond] will be larger (up to $200.0 million higher) to the extent tax certiorari refunds made to reduce the backlog are paid with additional borrowed money,” the NIFA report cautioned. At the same time, “a failure of the county to successfully implement its assessment reform plan and effectuate a meaningful reduction of its tax certiorari backlog” constitutes one of the greatest threats to the county’s fiscal stability, according to the NIFA report. Adding further uncertainty, the county is currently in discussions with the five major public employee unions, including those representing law enforcement officers, all of which have been working without a contract since 2017. Increases in salary or fringe benefits or any up-staffing — especially if such provisions are made retroactive — could add further stresses to the budget. And state-mandated changes in the discovery process, due to take effect in January, could also add significantly to the cost of law enforcement. Finally, as noted by legislators Gaylor and Rhoads in statements after the budget vote, deficits in the sewer fund are not clearly accounted for in many of the budget projections, even as the county continues to issue debt. In May, for example, the county issued $74.4 million in bond-anticipation notes to fund “general sewer capital projects,” according to the rating report issued at the time by Fitch Ratings. In one of the bright spots, last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wayfair v. South Dakota, cleared the way for the county to begin collecting sales tax on Internet transactions made from outside New York. The extent to which the county may benefit is still under discussion.