Amid budget gaps, Long Island needs change

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, above, backed Anthony

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, above, backed Anthony Manetta, a political strategist and fundraiser, for IDA chief executive. (Dec. 20, 2011) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Is it time to hit the reset button on suburbia? The question is key, as cash-starved Nassau and Suffolk grapple with growing deficits in their budgets.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last week promised to reimagine what county services should be, while in Nassau, County Executive Edward Mangano already has begun the process of trimming expenses.

So far, Nassau significantly has cut back on contributions to the bus system. Next up, county water and sewer facilities.

Bellone, meanwhile, is looking at a private-public partnership to mitigate Suffolk's expense in running a nursing home -- following the lead of Nassau, which rid itself of day-to-day operations of the county hospital more than a decade ago.

In Suffolk, Bellone likely will let stand upcoming layoffs that impact almost 500 employees; if so, it would mark the second time in two years that Suffolk has been forced to shed a significant portion of its payroll.

Nassau's approach to squeezing employee-related expenses has been less robust and more accordionlike -- with Nassau shedding, adding and sometimes doing both at the same time since the mid-1980s.

Is the current crisis real?

Yes, because rising pension, compensation, benefits and social services expenses are projected to wedge gaps in both county budgets through 2013.

In Suffolk, pension costs alone are projected to rise 88 percent between now and 2013; in Nassau, which projects expenses over four years, the costs are expected to rise an astounding 105 percent between 2010 and 2013.

So what are the counties supposed to do? The quick and dirty answer is: Raise revenue and reduce expenses.

Duh.

But let us pause here to put the crisis into context. For all the Sturm und Drang about county costs, it's important to remember that the county portion of the average property tax bill is comparatively small.

In Suffolk, it's 10.3 percent of the average bill -- and that includes taxes for the police, general fund, community college and district court funds.

In Nassau, the number is higher -- 16 percent -- but even that's chicken scratch compared with school districts' share -- about three-fifths of average property tax bills in both counties.

Why is it, then, that county taxes get all of the attention and school district taxes, comparatively, get none? Perhaps it's because voters seem to view county officials as politicians rather than neighbors -- and school boards as neighbors rather than politicians.

Whatever the reason, voters almost always pass tax-increase school budgets, which is why school boards propose them, while county officials, especially in Nassau, view putting forth tax-increase budgets as akin to letting loose a pack of bloodsucking gnats.

Why? It's the economy, certainly. But there may be another reason as well: county government gone wild.

Back before Nassau and Suffolk became the twin kings of suburbia, county government was a simpler affair. It provided police protection and social services, much of which is mandated by state and federal governments. Over time, government got into the business of recreation, health care, senior citizens, veterans affairs and a host of other extra services.

A report released by a consulting firm for the control board overseeing Nassau County detailed how much county government had to do, compared with how much it chose to do.

No one is suggesting stripping services in either county to the core -- it would hurt Long Island's precious quality of life.

But there's considerable wiggle room in both budgets. Which means that Nassau and Suffolk will change. The challenge, for Bellone and Mangano, is to fix the budgets -- all while building toward a better future.