Brown: Suffolk needs more than symbolic gestures

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gives his first

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gives his first State of the County address in Hauppauge. (April 18, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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It will take more than political appointees paying into Suffolk County's health care plan and selling off a few county cars to solve Suffolk's fiscal crisis.

In his State of the County address Wednesday night, Steve Bellone, Suffolk's top elected official, said he would make both moves -- and more, including freezing his salary and those of top aides, and reminding the public that he already took a $21,000-a-year cut from his official salary, and a $4,000 cut from his predecessor's salary.

He set the right tone and sent the right signals, but the job will take more than that.

This week, fixing Suffolk's budget woes got harder with the disclosure that the county -- which a year ago had a small surplus -- had ended 2011 deeper in the red than anticipated.

The figures released by County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki are higher than those announced weeks ago by a special panel that Bellone had appointed. The panel dealt with projections, while Sawicki dealt with tallies of actual revenues and expenditures.

The 2011 deficit number still could grow, though likely not by much, because Suffolk has yet to receive every bit of revenue or pay off every bill incurred last year.

What's a cash-poor county to do -- particularly with Suffolk facing a cumulative three-year deficit of more than a half-billion dollars?

Long-term, Bellone -- like every other municipal executive -- is focusing on economic development in an effort to create private-sector jobs. Although he didn't say so in last night's address, Bellone -- like every other municipal executive -- also is keeping fingers crossed that the region's snail-paced economic recovery picks up speed.

The problem is that solutions to Suffolk's budget woes can't wait. Bellone spent his first hundred days in office working toward building consensus on the size of the deficit and how best to address it.

But so far, he's not had to get his hands dirty. That's going to change with the inevitability of Bellone's laying off hundreds of county employees whose positions aren't funded past June.

And what about services?

This week, the county social services department floated ideas about tightening up on eligibility for some mandated programs so the county can save money. Among the first cuts could be dropping 1,900 children now enrolled in government-subsidized child care.

More revenue from red light cameras? A parking-violations bureau? Video-gaming terminals? Suffolk -- following the lead of cash-strapped Nassau County -- wants them all.

Still, the moves Bellone already has made, and those he outlined in his speech -- including the auctioning of some of the seven county cars detailed to his office -- will not be enough.

If the county is to avoid Nassau's decades-long fiscal crisis, it will have to overcome politicians' aversion to making difficult policy decisions.

"There are two ways of dealing with reality," Bellone said Wednesday night. "You can embrace it or you can deny it."

Bellone said he's ready to embrace the crisis, for the sake of securing the county's future. He'll need whatever political strength he can muster.