The Numbers Racket

Phoebe Goodman is the kind of longtime fiscal watchdog you'd expect to find scrambling alongside politicians and reporters to examine Nassau County's year 2000 budget.

But instead of joining the fray when the budget was (sort of) released in early December, the leader of the Nassau Citizens Budget Committee just watched while bureaucrats and journalists raced to get their hands on the 900-page, hard-to-come-by document. She stood silent while officials grandstanded about County Executive Tom Gulotta's mushrooming deficit, and she waited as Newsday outlined ways the Republican machine had broken promises to curb spending and slash patronage jobs.

Goodman says she stayed on the sideline not because she has stopped caring about Nassau's financial mess but because answers for ordinary taxpayers can't be found among the obscure line items and Byzantine charts. "Everybody gets hysterical about examining the budget," says Goodman. "I don't, because I know I can't understand it."

Nassau's budget doesn't have to be so difficult for regular people to comprehend. But rather than heed calls for a spending plan that spells out in plain terms where the money comes from and where it goes, Gulotta and the Republican-controlled county legislature have continued to publish documents that bury even the most informed reader with a blizzard of acronyms and free-floating details.

County Comptroller Fred Parola, for one, has made a great show of asking for a so-called "narrative" budget, which would provide charts, sensible overviews and reports on actual spending. The Republican says the former Nassau Board of Supervisors took a few baby steps in toward creating just such a budget when it wrote the plan for 1995. "It was a small beginning," Parola says, "but it was a beginning."

By the time Nassau supervisors got around to making their financial planning somewhat accessible to the public, the courts had already ruled that the weighted voting system used by the six-member board was unconstitutional. The supervisors were replaced in 1995 by a 19-member County Legislature, many of whose representatives were new to government. "They had to cut their teeth," says Parola.

Those legislators accomplished little once their molars and incisors came in. After four years in office, the GOP majority managed only to help send Nassau's credit rating into freefall. Faced with a full-blown financial crisis, they've showed little drive to make the budget more readable, despite their protests to the contrary.

And for the Democratic majority set to take over in January, the situation may not be much different. The Democrats have been locked out of the process for so long that they're starting nearly from scratch—while trying to overcome a $110 million deficit, courtesy of a last-minute repeal of the real estate transfer tax by the Republicans who had imposed it. Days after Newsdaypublished an analysis of the budget, Democrat Roger Corbin of Westbury, who'll become the deputy presiding officer, couldn't show a reporter a copy of the document itself. "I still haven't got one," Corbin said on Dec. 6.

Somewhere in the pages Corbin has yet to see, presumably, is enough information to decipher whether Nassau took in the revenue it projected from parking tickets or spent more than it intended on police salaries. After 25 years of hounding county officials about the way they manage money, Goodman may understand Nassau's finances better than anyone, but she says even she can't make sense of where tax dollars go. "When you get the copy of the budget, it's around 1,000 pages," she says. "Where are you going to look? People used to call me and say, 'Can you tell me how much they're spending on Project A?' And I'd say, 'No.' "

Not every municipal budget in Nassau is a thicket through which no trail can be found. Goodman cites a number of places where spending plans make sense, among them the Democratic stronghold of Glen Cove, the Republican-controlled Village of Rockville Centre and the Port Washington Water Pollution Control District.

Glen Cove Mayor Tom Suozzi, a Democrat, says that when he started serving in 1994, he inherited a budget that looked a lot like the one Nassau uses now. "It was just a bunch of lines," Suozzi says. "Just a line-by-line thing."

Now Glen Cove's budget is broken down by departments, with a summary of each agency's responsibilities and goals for the upcoming year. The budget shows how much was spent last year, how much has spent so far in the current year and how much will be needed next year. It also provides a census of employees, revealing how many are employed in individual departments and where they fit into the hierarchy.

Getting veteran financial planners to change the way they wrote the budget wasn't easy, says Suozzi, who is considering a run for county executive in 2001. But Suozzi says the detailed, narrative spending plan has become one of the city's best management tools, since it allows politicians and the public to see at a glance how different departments say they are making use of public money. "You should be able to look at the budget and say this is what they do," he says. "Until you know that, you can't do anything."

 
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