Numbers don’t lie. Or do they?
For Jack Schnirman, who took the oath as Nassau County comptroller on Jan. 9, the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) have not painted a real picture of the county’s finances.
During the campaign, Schnirman took issue with the reports issued by his predecessor, George Maragos, that claimed the county had a year-end surplus. This only came about, the Long Beach resident pointed out, thanks to borrowing authorized by the county’s financial oversight agency, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA).
“Only phony accounting gimmicks are going to tell us there is a surplus,” Schnirman told Anton Media Group before the election. “If we are to turn the county’s finances around, we have to start with real transparency, starting with a real conversation about where we’re at. If we can’t agree with where we’re at, we’ll never get to where we need to be.”
He added, “If we had a [real] terrific surplus in Nassau, there’d be no need for [NIFA].”
Schnirman was sworn in by State Supreme Court Justice Sharon Gianelli at Nassau Community College, with New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli looking on.
“Schnirman is the kind of public servant we need: honest, focused and dedicated to making government work for the people,” DiNapoli said. “As Brookhaven chief deputy town supervisor, Jack helped stop the abuse of taxpayer dollars on no-bid contracts. As Long Beach City manager, he helped turn around the city’s finances, which resulted in upgraded bond ratings and credit-positive reviews. I have no doubt he will serve Nassau County with the same integrity and passion and be a positive force for its residents.”
Schnirman outlined his four top priorities: modernizing the county’s financial operations, initiating strategic audits to target waste, reforming the contracting process, and improving accessibility to the Comptroller’s Office to better serve residents.
“We aren’t talking about never before-seen untested practices here. This is common sense, smart and tough financial analysis that for too long has been pushed by the wayside so those who clung to power could take advantage of us,” Schnirman said.
He defined his role as being the “fiscal watchdog of the county. The office oversees finances, audits, payroll and vendor contracts….Here’s how I see the role: I serve as your fiscal umpire, an impartial voice calling balls and strikes and providing facts, transparency and clarity. And here is the thing, the umpire can’t work for the home team; we’ve got to play it straight down the middle. I will be an honest messenger providing the scorecard on the state of the county’s finances.”
Schnirman added, “The public needs to trust that the audits, financial reports, policy recommendations, and data analysis coming out of this office are developed free from political influence. I am going to run a professional and independent comptroller’s office that won’t back down in the face of the status quo.”
Fulfilling a campaign pledge, he unveiled a “you report it we reform it” tip line that any resident or county worker can use to inform his office of waste or fraud: ReportItReformIt@nassaucountyny.gov.
Eyes On The Price
From an interview Schnirman did with Anton Media Group before the election:
“The work that I’ve been doing and my education really prepare me well to do this job. I spent a few months exploring ways in which I can make a difference here in the county, and came to the conclusion that the best way I can serve was to be county comptroller.”
“Nassau County is a phenomenal place with terrific assets and incredible people, As a county, we deserve a government as good as our residents and one that knows how to manage its money properly.”
“The comptroller’s office is ripe to be a powerful vehicle for reform in Nassau County, and that’s the kind of independent county comptroller that I’m prepared to be.”
“Only phony accounting gimmicks are going to tell us that there is a surplus in Nassau County. That’s the kind of cynical, disingenuous talk I think residents are sick of. And it papers over the problems. All is does is end up costing us more.”
“There are a lot of things that need to be looked at, and we read about them every day. We see a county jail where there is no accountability. People are literally dying because they’re not getting their medicines. We see issues at the hospital. We see issues at the [community] college—all over the place.”
“I want to reestablish the independent audit advising committee that we’ve seen previously in the comptroller’s office, and that can do the kind of work that needs to be done. One of the most important things the committee can do is choose the right kinds of audits, and have a smart plan for the year-to-do audits.”
“The fund balance should be refereed to as the rainy day fund. All too often some folks look to use the fund as an easy solution to difficult problems. It should be used for one-time, not recurring or operating expenses.”
“What I would recommend is that [the fund] be used to finance priorities like transportation or infrastructure. Those are the things that we need in Nassau County. Those are the things that will grow our economy…that will help people get to work, that families rely on, and will help quality of life issues.”
Industrial Development Agency: “The county IDA is ripe for reform. Its purpose is to facilitate economic development and create local jobs. When we have an IDA granting tax breaks left and right to car dealers and storage facilities, that’s telling me we’re not putting a priority on job creation—we’re putting a priority on political deals. I’m disappointed with the [county] IDA. It needs to take a professional approach and do some real analysis to create jobs and economic development. It’s one of the first audits I look forward to doing.”
Police Department: “In Long Beach, we capped the [retirement] payouts. When we came to office, we were dealing with payouts that were nearly bankrupting our city,and we sought to reform that. In Nassau County, the question is how do we get the most and best policing for the taxpayer dollar and deploy our force most efficiently? That’s what the public and police themselves want and expect. They’re on the front lines of safety and want to feel that they’re part of keeping [the county] safe.”
“It is absurd to think we are a county next to New York City and with the great beaches and assets we have—and yet we have a county government constantly bordering on insolvency.”
“The county finances have taken a variety of steps backwards over the past eight years, and that’s disappointing. We’ve had fiscal mismanagement and scandal and a failure to take corrective action and a refusal to initiate reform. It’s a movie that we’ve seen before.”
“With a deficit as deep as we see in Nassau County, there’s no magic solution, no magic wand that can be waved to turn things around.”
The newly-sworn comptroller gave the following remarks at the ceremony:
Thank you so much Tom [DiNapoli]. I know I speak for everyone in the room when I say you have set the bar for what it means to be an effective and honest public servant. The people of New York State are lucky to have you in their corner, and I’m proud to have you in mine.
It is truly an honor to be standing before all of you today and it has been an incredible year getting to this point. I started this campaign knowing it would be tough, and that the reward for winning would be even tougher—the opportunity to fight for and achieve reform. But like so many of you in this room today, I did it because we need reform-minded leaders to push Nassau County forward.
I was very fortunate that at about the midway point in the campaign, I got a boost. My wife and I found out we were expecting our second child. And as I thought about what I want for my family I felt a renewed sense of mission. Because I know, first hand the decisions we make will have impacts that can last for generations. Where we live in Long Beach, a beautiful clean beach sits less than a mile away from Reynolds Channel. It’s a dream of mine for my daughter Sage to swim in that channel without leaving with more than a healthy glow.
And it is all because at some point, some government officials thought it would be a good idea to use Reynolds Channel as a sewage runoff site.
Surely a better decision could have been made, and that is what local government should be about. I know a lot of you have been to several inaugurations over the past couple of weeks some of you have even been sworn into office. And here is my take, whether as citizens or if you are being sworn into office know that it is all important. We all have a role to play.
When you run for comptroller, the most common thing you hear is … What the heck is a comptroller? Simply put, the comptroller acts as fiscal watchdog of the county. The office oversees finances, audits, payroll and vendor contracts.
But in these challenging times as we face a crisis of corruption and tough fiscal problems, we need to do more so that your tax dollars are protected. Here’s how I see the role:
I serve as your fiscal umpire, an impartial voice calling balls and strikes and providing facts, transparency and clarity. And here is the thing, the umpire can’t work for the home team; we’ve got to play it straight down the middle. I will be an honest messenger providing the score card on the state of the county’s finances.
I lead your team of county auditors. I’ll be using the resources of our talented professional staff to help departments make improvements in the way they serve the public and asking the tough, and sometimes uncomfortable questions of those who are standing in the way of progress.
It’s about investigations: Our investigative team is going to follow the money and push for answers and accountability from everyone in government, regardless of their position of power.
It’s also about efficiency: Expanding our ability to improve performance. We are putting into place a team that will allow the comptroller’s office to be the county’s in-house management consulting firm, generating data so we can direct resources to the people and programs getting results.
And above all else, I am your set of eyes and ears on the inside. I won’t hesitate to blow up the back rooms and ask the tough questions to make sure we are getting the bang for our buck. Because that’s what you hired me to do.
Make no mistake, we aren’t talking about never before-seen untested practices here. This is common sense—smart and tough financial analysis that for too long has been pushed by the wayside, so those who clung to power could take advantage of us. I don’t have superhuman powers to read minds or see through walls. But have you met the executive team we’ve put together? They’re incredible. Will the executive team please stand?
Now I would like to recognize the incredible professional staff.
We’ve set three principles for how we’re going to approach this office.
- Investigation. It is our obligation to conduct detailed and impartial investigations. The era of looking the other way, or helping out a connected friend, or doing something a certain way solely because that is the way it has always been done, is coming to an end.
- Innovation. As I heard first-hand during a recent roundtable, generations of technology continue to pass Nassau County by. We need to seize opportunities to get the most out of our staff hours and streamline operations, find efficiencies, identify risks, and better recognize complex financial trends so that we can save taxpayer dollars and invest in the services you care about. We need to free our nonprofit partners from the boxes of paperwork and consistent late payments so that they can focus their resources where they should be—helping those in need.
- Independence. The public needs to trust that the audits, financial reports, policy recommendations, and data analysis coming out of this office are developed free from political influence. I am going to run a professional and independent comptroller’s office that won’t back down in the face of the status quo.
The benefit of having to have delay today’s ceremony is that after being in office for a week, I can tell you with confidence the four priorities we set during the campaign are already moving forward.
- We are going to start talking about the state of the county’s finances honestly again. No games, no gimmicks. We can’t fix our problems when there is disagreement over basic issues like whether we are running a surplus or a crippling deficit.
- We are going to conduct smart audits that ask the tough questions and give the public the answers they have been demanding for years. That includes a nepotism audit to identify where friends and family have been hired over qualified candidates. From infrastructure contracts to in-house services, we cannot shirk our duty to root out waste, fraud, and inefficiencies.
- We are going to reform our contracting system and partner with the District Attorney’s Office to create a process that is transparent and open to all qualified business owners, not just the politically connected ones.
- We are going to give every resident and every county worker a seat at the table when it comes to identifying issues that need to be reformed. This week we are unveiling our official “you report it we reform it” tip line. Now any resident or county worker can email ReportItReformIt@nassaucountyny.gov and get straight through to the comptroller’s office.
We have our work cut out for us. But I have seen first hand what can be done when we can work together—government, the private sector, labor, nonprofits…everyone pulling in the same direction.
When Superstorm Sandy hit, I was the city manager in Long Beach. I was, and still am, amazed at how
powerful that storm was. More powerful though, was the response. From the smallest nonprofit cooking meals over a propane burner, to hundreds of first responders across a variety of agencies working together, we rebuilt stronger, smarter, and safer. It all just works when everyone works together.
Why do we only see that spirit during a natural disaster? It shouldn’t take a literal wall of water to get your local government pointed in the right direction.
How can we come together to fix this broken system?
It costs every one of us money every single day—late fees, no-bid so-called emergency contracts, and vendor markup because businesses know they might not get paid for a year.
That is the true cost of the status quo; the cost of doing nothing. We’ve paid too many of these costs for far too long, and the cost of doing nothing will continue to grow and outstrip every piecemeal budget cut we make until we do something about it.
Let’s do something about it together. The comptroller’s office is your office and we want to amplify the voice of the people who have screamed themselves hoarse saying enough is enough so that everyone knows and understands what exactly is going wrong.
We can do so much more. All around the country, comptrollers are making a positive impact. I want our comptroller’s office to be a resource for all of the people of Nassau County.
As we go forward, I want to thank you all again, whether we’ve worked together for years, or if we’ve just met today. I am excited to face the challenges the next four years will bring, and I look forward to working with all you to answer the call of reform.
So, let’s get to work.