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Editorial

Payout scandal raises serious questions

Posted

A disturbing pattern of behavior has been passed down from one city administration to the next in Long Beach since at least the mid-1990s. And in the thick of it all is our current Nassau County comptroller, Democrat Jack Schnirman.

As comptroller, Schnirman is responsible for checking the county’s books to ensure financial accountablility.

But in September, a scathing audit by the New York state comptroller, more than a year in the making, revealed that Long Beach city officials, including Schnirman, were overpaid for sick and vacation days by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars over the past two and a half decades when they left the city’s employ.

As Long Beach city manager, Schnirman was overpaid by just over $52,000 when he left the city in January 2018 to become county comptroller, the audit confirmed. The Herald was first to report the story in the spring of 2018.

Schnirman received compensation for 100 percent of his unpaid sick and vacation days, when, according to the City Charter and his own contract, he should have gotten 30 percent. That he was overpaid by such a large amount raises serious questions about our confidence in him.

Schnirman had a contract with the city that spelled out what he was supposed to be paid when he left the city. Long Beach officials, including Schnirman, apparently overlooked or ignored that agreement.

Schnirman claims that he left it up to the city’s payroll department to calculate his payout, and that he returned the overpayment when the state made clear that he received the money in error.

That’s true. So far he’s the only official to give the money back. For that, he should be commended. Others should clearly follow suit.

Here’s the thing: Schnirman is now the county comptroller. How can he, in good conscience, claim he didn’t understand the terms of his own contract, or that he didn’t take the time to properly calculate his payout? Didn’t the $108,000 payment he received seem suspiciously high to him? As comptroller, his job is to ferret out such waste.

Either he is lying about his understanding of the city’s made-up payout system, or he demonstrated an unforgivable level of ineptitude. If he can’t pay attention to and properly calculate his own payout, how can we trust him to critique the county’s nearly $3.7 billion annual budget?

There has been much fallout already from the payout scandal. There are two criminal investigations now under way, at the federal and county levels.

Long Beach’s city manager, Rob Agostisi, resigned last week, ostensibly to take a job with Long Island’s LGBT Network. The position, Agostisi said, was secured months before the state audit was released. We learned only recently, however, that Agostisi was granted a special confidential contract by Schnirman when he was city manager that ensured Agostisi would get 100 percent of his sick and vacation days when he left the city’s employ. Otherwise he would have received significantly less. That contract, which was signed in December 2016, was not revealed to the City Council until last month, after the state audit was released.

In November 2017, it appeared that Agostisi would leave the city to take a job with the Town of Hempstead. Then he didn’t. Nevertheless, he received a $128,000 payout, well in excess of the City Charter’s requirements. He tried to return the money, he said, but was told that he couldn’t, and he has yet to give it back. (His special contract ensured that he wouldn’t have to.)

Agostisi’s contract makes us wonder how much Schnirman understood about the city’s payout rules. If he knew enough to write a contract for Agostisi guaranteeing him 100 percent of his sick and vacation days to “retain” him as an employee, shouldn’t Schnirman have understood his own contract?

Clearly, greater state intervention is needed to clean up the mess in Long Beach government. State audits in the mid-1990s revealed consistent errors — overpayments — in sick and vacation payouts. Then, it appears, nothing happened, and city officials returned to business as usual, allowing one generation of officials after another to profit at taxpayers’ expense.

Our county comptroller is supposed to be on the lookout for such abuses of power, particularly when they cost taxpayers money. He is expected to clean up such messes, not perpetuate them.