Finances tangled in New York's Nassau County

Computers left in boxes, paperwork unchecked, employees uncounted

January 12, 2003|By Bruce Lambert | Bruce Lambert,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. - David Letterman hasn't staged any contests for stupid government tricks, but if he ever does, Nassau County could have some contenders for the top 10.

This is a place, after all, whose 911 system was almost shut down in May, county officials said, because the phone bill, caught in cumbersome paperwork, hadn't been paid.

In recent interviews, officials in the new administration gave a variety of other examples. There were the 1,200 Dell computers bought as backups in case of year 2000 problems but left unused in boxes for nearly three years, growing obsolete, while much of the county staff was stuck with decades-old Wang computers.

Over at the social services agency, tireless check writers were paying 6 million Medicaid claims a year, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, but the agency failed to screen for errors, fraud or eligibility for specific services or drugs. Even the county morgue's freezers were breaking down, requiring emergency repairs to prevent the corpses from - well, you get the idea.

"Everything was broken," said Arthur A. Gianelli, a deputy to County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi, who a year ago became the first Democrat to hold that office in three decades.

Suozzi had campaigned as the man to fix a government that was not so much broken as broke. In the booming 1990s, Nassau almost went belly-up, until the state bailed it out with $105 million in special aid and imposed a fiscal oversight board.

But it has taken the past year, Suozzi says, to learn the depth and the maddening details of the county's problems. When he took office, he said, the $2.2 billion-a-year Nassau government had no accounting of how many workers it employed, what property it owned or how much it spent, and had even forgotten some bank accounts.

`A very big hole'

"It was far worse than I ever imagined," Suozzi said. "We are still digging ourselves out of a very big hole."

The previous executive, Thomas S. Gulotta, who retired a year ago, would not comment on criticisms of his legacy, a spokesman said. There is no shortage of critics: In 2002, a study of 40 major counties in the nation, by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, rated Nassau as the worst run. Even Gulotta's Republicans have berated his management.

Of course, new administrations often paint their predecessors as flawed, and Suozzi has critics of his own. The County Legislature's Republican minority charges that he has been too quick to raise taxes and too slow to wring givebacks from the unions. He has lectured employees on polite behavior, yet has shown a short temper. But as Suozzi and his aides tally what they say are the lapses of the past, the list is long. And outrage has been tinged with an amazement bordering on amusement.

"There are all sorts of these stupid examples," Gianelli said. For instance, the county paid for nearly 1,400 inactive telephone lines - most of them unused for the last two to three years and not even hooked up to phones. The new administration is seeking a refund from Verizon, and is saving $300,000 a year by dropping service.

After reviewing the assignment of the county fleet, the new administration took cars away from eight employees who were found to have no valid driver's license.

Nassau even seems to have its own time zone. Night differential pay for the police starts, by contract, at 11 in the morning.

Suozzi recalled, "We did not even have an accurate head count of people working for the county." The number turned out to be 9,442 - plus hundreds more squirreled away in grant programs. "We had bodies that don't show up in the budget," said Mitchell Sahn, director of health and human services, "because the past administration didn't want to show an increase."

By mid-December the work force had shrunk to 8,508, through early-retirement incentives and attrition.

"We looked for an organization chart," said Deputy County Executive Anthony Cancellieri. "All we could find was a lunch chart." Suozzi soon linked related county agencies into groups, each headed by one of his deputies.

Finances were equally chaotic, Gianelli said. "It was almost impossible to tell how much was spent in various budget accounts and funds in different years," he said. "Depending on who you asked, you got a different answer."

The county neglected dozens of small bank accounts, which the state eventually declared abandoned. The new treasurer, Henry M. Dachowitz, is switching from dusty ledgers to electronic files and has streamlined 225 accounts to 75.

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