We have all at some time in our lives wished or hoped we could stop everything around us while we made a critical decision. Unfortunately, that is usually not possible. So we do what we can to slow things down and then try to make an informed and responsible decision. When the Democrats took over the majority of the County Legislature in 2000, the County was in the throes of a fiscal meltdown and it appeared that no one was taking the time to step back and assess what had to be done. With that sensible rationale in mind, we scheduled quarterly budget hearings in which department heads from throughout the County would give detailed testimony about their departments and budgeting status in the hope that we could stay attuned to problems as they were developing.
Last week, the first of four 2001 Budget Hearings revealed that, despite recent statements to the contrary, Nassau County's budget crisis is not over. The two-day hearing identified several risks, and confirmed many concerns expressed by the Democratic Majority during the adoption process last year. Unforeseen costs, unrealistic revenue projections, and delays in implementing cost saving initiatives were cited as threats to the 2001 Budget.
According to testimony during the hearings, the recent economic downturn and rising energy costs have proven costly. The Department of Public Works and the Department of General Services have projected a shortfall of between $1.5 and $2 million for utilities. The county executive vetoed the Democratic Majority budget proposal to realistically project these costs and add $2 million to the 2001 budget. Additionally, trouble on Wall Street has prompted the State to consider charging localities for a portion of their pension costs. Such an initiative could cost between $8 and $10 million in 2001.
An unforeseen cost, such as the pension payments, was what the Democratic Majority was thinking about when it included a Reserve Fund in its adopted 2001 Budget. The measure, which the county executive ultimately vetoed, would have provided a safety net against a budget-breaking expense such as this. The "fund" could have also absorbed the potential cost of a new police contract, which many expect to go to arbitration later this year.
The contracting of outside legal representation has long been an excessive cost in Nassau County. According to testimony, funds appropriated to hire additional lawyers in the County Attorney's Office have not been utilized, resulting in the continued use of expensive outside representation.
The hearing did provide positive news on several fronts. The inclusion of $800,000 to the Department of Public Works budget was critical in enabling them to successfully clear roadways during several significant snowfalls this past winter. Additionally, testimony revealed that revenues at the Traffic and Parking Violations Agency were higher during the first quarter of 2001 as compared to 2000. The increase was attributed to fee increases implemented by the Legislature in 2000.
These budget hearings will not cure the financial ills of Nassau County, but they will foster a healthy relationship between the Legislature and the County's infrastructure, and in turn, establish a more calculated and responsive budget plan. Nassau may not be as healthy as the lion on the County emblem, but at least, in budget terms, it's now more like an owl than an ostrich.