Nassau County Legislative Majority Leader Peter Schmitt believes the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority's (NIFA) takeover of the county's finances is nothing but a “coup” and board members have something other than the county’s best interest at heart.
At a press conference in his office Monday morning, the Massapequa Republican accused each of NIFA's six members of casting politically motivated votes to gain oversight over the county’s budget.
“This is not the same board,” Schmitt said. “Believe me, Ron Stack is no Frank Zarb,” referring to the current and a past NIFA chairman, respectively.
Schmitt’s singling out of Stack stems from his hiring by Wells Fargo Bank after the county had deposited $82 million in funds under the Suozzi administration. Nassau had made the deposit to Wells Fargo in May 2009 and Stack joined the bank the following month.
“This guy has a conflict of interest, I believe, it’s my opinion,” Schmitt said. “I think it’s the height of irresponsibility on his part not to have taken steps to address that conflict.” Schmitt is calling for the county to withdraw the funds from Wells Fargo.
When asked if removing the money from Stack’s bank would remove the ethical conflict, Schmitt said that “we don’t know because these are operating funds of the county and as much as I’d like to see it, I doubt very much that we’re going to be able to... move (the funds). If you stop robbing liquor stores, that doesn’t mean that you didn’t rob liquor stores.”
Schmitt did not specify which statute any of the NIFA board members might be violating in their code of ethics, available on the NIFA website. Representatives for both NIFA and Stack have indicated that there has been no conflict of interest as Stack’s position of NIFA chairman was cleared by the Commission of Public Integrity.
“If this stands, he has a voice and ultimately a vote in determining where county money goes,” Schmitt said, referring to Stack. “Shouldn’t we know what he stands to profit from that? Even indirectly?”
Schmitt said he has also raised the ethics questions through the commission last June and his office indicated that hearings would be scheduled for sometime in mid-February. The majority leader also railed against his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Diane Yatauro, D-Glen Cove.
According to a NIFA document issued on Jan. 26 when the board imposed its takeover, County Executive Ed Mangano stated there was an agreement in place with Democratic county legislators over borrowing for property tax settlements but on a conference call the minority leader made no such indication an agreement existed.
“We had a written agreement,” Schmitt said. “The same bonding which has been done for the last 10 years. Unbeknownst to me, the minority leader wrote a letter to NIFA two weeks ago renouncing that deal. Now we have to start making budget cuts to offset that cost.”
In a statement, Yatauro called Schmitt’s comments “inappropriate and harsh,” adding that both Mangano and Schmitt “failed to respond responsibly and professionally” with the NIFA takeover. Yatauro also asked that both sides “sit down calmly during this control period and show how we will balance the 2011 budget, anything less is irresponsible and unprofessional.”
NIFA has also questioned various aspects of Nassau’s fiscal plan, including projections of sales tax and property tax income in the still sluggish economy, asking for a number of contingency plans which have bristled members of the administration.
Schmitt called NIFA's predictions “laughable on its face. The elected officials – not the appointed bureaucrats – have every right to manage the problem.”
Schmitt admitted that Nassau will most likely not realize savings through union concessions and there are corresponding cuts the county can make to keep the budget in balance. Mangano had recently submitted six letters to NIFA detailing various contingencies for his 2011 budget, which the agency says does not project a balanced budget and indicates a $176 million deficit.
Mangano has maintained that his 2011 budget is balanced and is suing NIFA over control of the county, indicating that the board wants him to raise property taxes.
“By saying you can’t use contingencies, you can’t use that, you can’t use the other thing, which is what they say in their decree, the only thing left is the property tax,” Schmitt said. “Well I’m here to push back on that. They’re not getting it, period. I don’t care what they do.”
Any property tax increase would have to first be passed through the legislature.