County approves $2.7 billion budget; passes out-of-county college tax to towns

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | A Suffolk County Legislature meeting in Riverhead.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s plan to shift the out-of-county state community college tuition tax over to the towns in his 2012 preliminary budget was sustained on Tuesday after the Legislature failed to override his veto on a budget amendment to roll back the county’s tax cap on gasoline priced over $3 per gallon.

The vote to roll back the fuel tax cap in order to fund the tuition tax failed 2-16, with Democratic legislators Wayne Horsley and DuWayne Gregory voting in favor. The majority of legislators voted against the move because updated gas price estimates show the county would generate only about $7 million by rolling back the fuel tax, which wouldn’t cover the $10.5 million to $12 million tuition tax and would ultimately create a multimillion dollar hole in the budget.

Based on data gathered between Sept. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31, 2011, county comptroller and North Fork native Joe Sawicki said the out-of-county tuition tax for 30 affected students from Riverhead would cost the town $141,130. Southold Town would pay $85,300 to educate similar students.

Residents will see a new line reflecting the out-of-county state community college tuition tax within the town’s portion of the property tax bill next year.

The statewide tax is charged for all students who attend New York community colleges outside their home counties and is paid to the county where the student is enrolled. To date, the tax for Suffolk students has been paid by the county.

North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) proposed a bill Tuesday to prohibit the county from passing the buck to the towns. If approved, the new law would go into effect during the 2013 budget cycle.

“This has never been a town charge,” he said. “It has always been a county charge and to pass it down to the towns as an unfunded mandate is extremely unfair.”

Repealing the tax cap on gasoline was the only budget amendment vetoed by Mr. Levy that wasn’t overridden by the Legislature, whose 2012 spending plan provides only six months of funding.

Legislators said passing a half-year budget will give incoming County Executive Steve Bellone, who will take office in January, an opportunity to find funding for over 600 county jobs. While Mr. Levy proposed 710 layoffs in his $2.7 billion spending plan, the Legislature’s budget reduced that number to 88.

The Legislature’s approved spending plan also increases next year’s county police district budget by $12.4 million. Only households in western Suffolk County towns will see the $27 hike in their tax bill to support that increase, since East End towns run their own police forces.

The measure includes a new police recruiting class of 80 officers to the tune of more than $1 million, something Mr. Levy said the county can’t afford now and will only be more costly as the officers move up the ranks. Most of the remaining $11 million will be used to balance the budget in the county’s general fund, officials said.

The Legislature also overrode Mr. Levy’s veto of using $12 million from the county’s reserve fund to stabilize taxes.

In a press release, Mr. Levy said he is against tapping into reserve funds because he believes it will end up costing the county more money down the road.

“Any further reduction of our stabilization fund is likely to lower our historically high bond rating, costing taxpayers more through higher interest payments,” he said.

Mr. Romaine said he voted in favor of the Legislature’s omnibus budget not so much because he agreed with all of its budget amendments, but because he believed the spending plan proposed by Mr. Levy was unbalanced.

“It was a very difficult budget to put together this year,” Mr. Romaine said. “Of the two, I thought the [Legislature’s budget] was the lesser of two evils.”

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