Nassau, Suffolk budget in different ways

A file photo of Suffolk County executive Steve

A file photo of Suffolk County executive Steve Levy at a news conference in October. (Oct. 14, 2010) (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Why is Suffolk County sitting relatively pretty these fiscally fragile days, while Nassau County's edging toward a cliff?

One key difference is Suffolk's deserved political reputation as the "Wild, Wild East," where everything - from raising bus fares, adding police officers and selling the county nursing home - gets aired and re-aired, re-re-aired and re-re-re-aired again as political opponents publicly maul their way to a decision.

There are few secrets when Republican lawmakers or coalition lawmakers or Democrat-turned-Republican County Executive Steve Levy, get down and dirty. The public benefits, however, because budget issues are routinely dissected down to gristle in a process that, while messy, leaves little to the public's imagination.

Contrast that with Nassau County, where there probably are residents newly gobsmacked over the question of: How on Earth, with all of the property taxes that we pay, can Nassau be sliding, again, toward insolvency?

One answer: In Nassau, county government - which the once-muscular Nassau County Republican Party decades ago smartly and efficiently transformed from a backwater function into one of the country's most influential political and governmental entities - speaks as one voice.

It's a tradition that continued even when Democrats, beginning with the election of 1999, took over the legislature for the first time in more than 70 years and later won the county executive's office for the first time since the 1960s.

Oh, there's fighting in Nassau, all right. But mostly it's over politics - like who gets what patronage job - rather than policy.

The flaw in Nassau's budgeting history is that elected officials leading the county - during its third fiscal crisis since the mid-1990s - failed to address an ever-widening structural gap between how much money government spent and how much it brought in.

Which is why a primer might come in handy for county residents right now. What's the difference between budgeting in Suffolk and in Nassau?

Here are three:

1. Suffolk's property tax assessment system is handled by its towns rather than the county; which is a great thing because in Nassau, residential and commercial property owners, as they have for decades, file and win appeals of property tax assessments.

Nassau has bonded hundreds of millions of dollars - and residents pony up even more in interest - to cover the cost of those appeals. It's a beast of an expense that Suffolk does not have - and that Nassau has yet to fix.

2. Suffolk executive Levy is cheap and likes to fight, fight, fight. On a police labor contract, he went to a binding arbitration hearing personally to plead for changes. He didn't get much, but he got something.

And county executives in Suffolk - unlike Nassau - never planted big deferred union payments into future budgets. Suffolk in 2009 lagged two weeks pay for employees, but the county will pay that money back, worker by worker, as employees leave, which means minuscule payments over decades.

For 2010, Levy proposed a budget with layoffs (as opposed to the "union concessions" in Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's 2011 budget proposal). "I know everybody goes after me on stuff like this and that's fine," Levy, unapologetic as always, said in an interview. "My job isn't to support special interests, like unions; my job is to anticipate budget problems and do what's necessary for us to get through them," he said.

3. Suffolk relies less on budget gimmicks than Nassau. For one, Levy has guarded the county's reserve, or rainy day, fund like Cerberus, apportioning out a tiny bit this year to cover a one-time increase in pension- fund payments. The county, he said, while it uses one-shot revenue, works to apply it to one-time, rather than continuing expenses. In Nassau, the county's entire reserve fund - $65 million, down from a high of more than $200 million under former County Executive Thomas Suozzi - is on the line as contingency for operating expenses in the 2011 budget.

Suffolk, like Nassau, includes proposed land sales in its 2011 plan. But there's a difference. In Nassau, there are budgeted parcels that haven't sold in years; in Suffolk, there's meager $12 million for the sale of land in Yaphank. The proposed sale made it into the budget for the first time ever - and that was after more than a year of public hearings and fiery debate.

Suffolk, like Nassau, also includes anticipated revenues from red-light cameras. But here there's a twist too: Suffolk added the revenue after - rather than, as in Nassau's 2011 budget, before - the county won state approval for such cameras. "When we add it to the budget," Levy said, "it's gravy."