Suffolk Closeup: County wars over dollars and sense

Steve Bellone

County Executive Steve Bellone (D-Babylon) has proposed a record-high budget for Suffolk County government for 2017 — $2.96 billion, 1.5 percent higher than this year’s.

Mr. Bellone says the budget is “tight but fair.”

A critic of the Bellone administration’s financial management, County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said: “Suffolk County’s financial situation is a sinking ship.”

Under Mr. Bellone’s recommended budget there would be no property tax increase county-wide but a 3.6 percent jump in the taxes in the county police district in the five western Suffolk towns where the Suffolk Police Department is the uniformed force.

The towns and villages on the East End, including the Town of Riverhead, have retained their own local police departments. But they are still charged for county police headquarters operations and assistance by special county police units such as the Homicide Squad, Arson Squad as well as the helicopters of the Aviation Section.

There would be new and increased fees. Among them would be a mortgage filing fee of $300, and nonprofit organizations given funding by the county would be charged a new 1 percent “surcharge” as an “administrative fee.” The Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services is given the go-ahead to “increase fees for fire and safety inspections currently performed at public schools and school districts.” Further, the county executive would be “authorized, directed and empowered to increase such other fees and fines to offset increased administrative expenses as is appropriate and necessary.”

There would be the elimination of some county services, including the public health home visiting nurse services program and smoking cessation program. Dropping the visiting nurse program is seen as saving $1.5 million and cutting the smoking cessation program $500,000.

The Suffolk Legislature can amend the recommended budget. The executive can veto its changes and the legislature can override vetoes.

Mr. Bellone, in his narrative in the budget document, blames the county government’s financial problems on lower sales tax receipts because of lower gasoline prices. “Stagnant sales tax revenues have continued to negatively impact the budget. Sales tax revenues, the largest single revenue sources for Suffolk County, have experienced several years of below-average growth,” he wrote. “Sales tax revenues continue to be impacted by lower prices at the pump.”

Has bad financial stewardship by Suffolk government also contributed to the situation?

For years there’s been several county legislators who have pointed to this. Among them was Legislator Tony Bullock (D-East Hampton), who each Thanksgiving announced his “Stuffed Turkey Awards” for cases of waste in Suffolk government. He went on to become East Hampton town supervisor.

These days, Legislator Trotta is a leading critic of the financial conduct of the county government administration. “If you told me two-and-a-half years ago it was so screwed up, I wouldn’t believe it,” Mr. Trotta said last week, referring to when he became a Suffolk County legislator after being a Suffolk Police officer for 25 years, most of these as a detective. “It’s bizarre, really.”

The fiscal “elephant in the room,” Mr. Trotta said, “is the 28 percent pay increase in an eight-year contract” agreed to by the Bellone administration. “I don’t blame the [police] unions. Their job was to get the most for their members.” But now increased annual pay hikes in the contract “are kicking in, sales tax revenue is flat” and the Bellone administration is “in a hole” and desperate.

Mr. Bellone, in his budget narrative, defends his administration’s financial stewardship. He says “we have created new recurring sources of revenue, limited hiring, cut expenditures, and significantly reduced the size of county government. Suffolk government currently is the smallest it has been since 1993, and is nearly 1,300 positions less than the day I took office.”

As to the county’s financial situation, Mr. Bellone says the “only longterm solution is to invest in economic development.”

Will that work?

Cesspools, which serve 70 percent of the county, limit commercial and housing development. But neighboring Nassau County has only 10 percent cess pool service and has become heavily developed, plus Nassau’s property taxes are much higher than Suffolk’s and its government has been in financial shambles for years. That has resulted, since 2000, in the imposition of a Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, its seven members appointed by state officials, with the power in Nassau to “monitor and oversee the county’s finances.”

Mr. Trotta says a similar state oversight authority is now necessary in Suffolk.

Top file photo: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

grossman_karl150The author is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.