“There is so much comptrolling to do. So little time.”
It wasn’t quite a lament coming from Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman. It was more of a comment on the sheer scale of his department’s purview.
Elected in 2017, he took office last January to take his turn keeping an eye on the finances of a county with a troubled fiscal history.
In a budget of about $3 billion, there are countless areas to find waste and inefficiencies. According to Schnirman, his auditors have found them.
The comptroller was giving his one-year progress report on the four goals he set out for his team on day one: Open and modernize the county’s finances; smart audits that ask the tough questions; clean up and reform county contracting and a “Report it. Reform It” whistleblower program.
“We’ve recovered millions of dollars for taxpayers, exposed wasteful government practices, fought on behalf of labor, and laid out Nassau County’s finances honestly,” Schnirman said. “Our residents invest in this community because Nassau County is a great place to live, work, and raise a family. In return for that investment, it’s the government’s job to hold up its end of the deal, and I am excited by both the progress our office has made and the plans for 2019.”
In one of his first acts, Schnirman laid out the true state of the county’s financial situation. During the two decades that the county has been under the supervision of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), there have been contentious issues over the size of the deficits and rainy day funds. Often, two different numbers were published.
“All major financial reports coming out of the Comptroller’s Office use the generally accepted accounting protocols (GAAP) national standard when available. No more switching back and forth between different sets of books,” Schnirman related. “We showed that the county had a rainy day fund deficit of $68.8 million in 2017 and projected a $117.1 million operating deficit for 2018.”
One of the things that Schnirman discovered was that the accounting software used by his office dated back to the 1980s.
“We jump-started what will be a massive project to upgrade the internal financial management software,” Schnirman stated. “I think we can all agree that we’ve wasted enough time and taxpayers’ dollars doing business around here like it’s the 1980s. It’s messy. It’s inefficient…[and] our outside auditors have identified [the software] as a material weakness.”
Another task, which will be unveiled in the near future, is to put the county’s checkbook online so that anyone can review revenues and expenditures.
Schnirman’s office completed six audits begun under predecessor George Maragos and opened seven new ones in 2018.
“Totaled up, our office found more than $16.5 million in wastefully spent money, recovered taxpayer funds and wages owed to employees of county vendors,” Schnirman summed up. “The biggest piece was $7.6 million in PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) recovered because our team knew how to follow the money and were not afraid to go into another municipality and demand answers. That money was close to being lost forever.”
His team looked into the operations of several departments and also launched an unprecedented nepotism audit that “while not yet completed, has gotten real results just by getting started,” Schnirman noted.
“It’s not about doing the audit,” he observed. “It’s about making the changes as a result of the audit—and it’s about achieving results.”
He introduced a new policy, where his teams checks up after six months to make sure recommendations have been followed.
“There is money to follow all over the county,” Schnirman remarked. “Like when our claims auditors identified thousands of dollars of suspicious water bill charges. They kicked off a full-scale review of how government is being billed by our utilities.”
Turned out, he revealed, that the American Water bill should have been $50, and not $4,300.
Paper To Electrons
“I can’t wait until there are no more boxes of paperwork being delivered around county offices by the ‘Pony Express’ so to speak,” Schnirman said of the paper-heavy billing and claims systems now in use.
His office checks every payment that the county makes every year—more than 60,000 involving more than $1 billion in contracts and expenditures.
“We’re making the claims process electronic so that our team can conduct faster, more intensive reviews of the bills we’re paying with your money,” Schnirman said. “With the county executive’s office’s help and our staff’s hard work, the entire…process will soon be transitioning to an electronic system.. And that’s something we’re extremely proud of.”
There is less chance for fraud and abuse under electronic record keeping, the comptroller affirmed.
Within a short time of introducing an anonymous tipline (ReportItReformIt@NassauCountyNY.gov), Schnirman said his office received dozens of tips and his investigators met with many whistleblowers to get more information.
“It’s opened up a smart dialog throughout the county, so keep [the tips] coming,” he said. “It has been recognized nationally by the National Association of Counties, and it’s getting results.”
His office also began a multilingual Living Wage hotline at 516-571-WAGE.
“When you put the word out that there are people willing to listen, people will speak up. Spanish language access was huge. And we’re going to do more in 2019,” Schnirman said.
Schnirman also created a Policy and Research Unit to study and deliver data-driven reports to aid policymakers with the information needed for innovative solutions and to, in his words, “thing big.”
He said that his office did what it set out to do at the beginning of his term, thanking his “unbelievable, awesome and tireless team for having the courage to see what is really happening, even if it make people uncomfortable.”
“It’s your money,” he concluded. “And at the end of the day it’s our job to make sure the county spends money the way it’s supposed to be spent.