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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Nassau’s NIFA Fight

The Mangano administration has expended too much energy trying to discredit the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), the state-created entity, which has enacted a control period over the county’s finances. It didn’t have to be this way, and a course correction is warranted.

Rather than suing NIFA—and that lawsuit can be dropped by Nassau County, the plaintiff—County Executive Edward Mangano and his allies in Mineola should employ tactics used by most successful boxers in their winning bouts: conserve energy, and counterpunch effectively. The combatant on the losing side of a fight is rarely knocked out. The vanquished boxer usually collapses due to exhaustion, or because their spirit has been broken.

Everything the county executive has been saying about NIFA’s directors in his Anton Newspaper op-ed pieces (e.g., NIFA showed no interest in taking over the county’s finances between 2002 and 2009, when a different political party controlled county government) rings true but does that matter? Even if the county were to secure a complete victory in court against NIFA, the county is scheduled to spend about $2.6 billion in 2011, and needs to collect $2.6 billion in revenue this year, a tough task.

NIFA’s directors voted, 6-0, to impose a control period over Nassau’s finances a few weeks ago, hinting at an anticipated revenue shortfall. The county attorney criticized the action, wondering aloud how NIFA could declare, weeks into a budget extending through Dec. 31, 2011, that the county’s finances were unbalanced, or at serious risk of being that way. The Mangano administration asked a great rhetorical question and subsequently hired outside counsel, sued NIFA for taking what it deemed to be an illegal step, and began airing campaign-like TV commercials. The ads offer a terrific synopsis of the county executive’s accomplishments but why allocate these resources now?

NIFA’s six directors are gubernatorial appointees. As such, you’d think they have political skills. That doesn’t appear to be the case. County Executive Mangano and County Legislator Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), the Legislature’s presiding officer, have repeatedly won tough campaigns.

In contrast to their electoral track records, NIFA director George Marlin secured one percent of the vote in the 1993 New York City mayoral election as the Conservative Party’s nominee. And NIFA chairman and director Ronald Stack shared with the public on NIFA’s website in January 2011 correspondence from the state written in September 2009. It said Stack could work full-time at Wells Fargo Bank and continue to serve on NIFA’s board. Only a political novice could be goaded by criticism into posting that ‘see, I’m an honest guy’ email trail. Moreover, there’s a Jan. 31 news release from NIFA’s full board online bemoaning how Legislator Schmitt said mean things about them. How did NIFA’s directors think the county’s elected officials would react to their control period vote?

The Republicans are facing a savvy-challenged NIFA board with enormous power to control county spending (e.g., freezing county employee salaries). Yet to date NIFA has chosen not to use it. This message, and others, can be conveyed in cost-effective ways far from courtrooms.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net