Bellone plays blame game over credit downgrade

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addresses legislators and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addresses legislators and constituents at the Suffolk County Legislative building in Hauppauge during the annual State of the County address. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

A spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says a Wall Street bond-rating agency downgrade this week isn't Bellone's fault.

But Bellone is more than halfway through his four-year term, so the spokeswoman's implication that former County Executive Steve Levy's likely the bad guy here is a reach.

On Tuesday, Moody's Investor Service downgraded Suffolk's rating on $1.4 billion general obligation debt to A3 from A2.

It also downgraded $70 million in revenue bonds issued by the county's Judicial Facilities Agency in connection with the sale-leaseback of Suffolk's H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Bellone's spokeswoman, called Moody's move unfair because the agency this year revised its rating method to "more heavily weight the historical past" -- back to 2005, when Levy was in office.

"There was no event that triggered this down-rating," she told Newsday. "We can't do anything about the past, we can only address things going forward," noting the county has reduced payroll, increased revenue and cut reliance on one-shots.

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OK, but in their report, Moody's analysts warned that Suffolk has -- note use of present tense, please -- a large general fund deficit, along with an "extremely tight liquidity position" that relies on short-term borrowing for cash flow and one-shot revenue.

To be fair, Suffolk was feeling a fiscal squeeze before Bellone -- who already has announced his intent to seek a second term -- took office in 2012.

After criticizing Levy for initiatives that included a blocked effort to close the county's nursing home, Bellone ended up having to champion some of the same causes -- including closing the nursing home.

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Bellone's at the helm. And like it or not, Suffolk's fiscal fortunes are now firmly tied to him, and his policies.

The news from Wall Street wasn't all bad. Standard & Poor's maintained Suffolk's credit rating. Fitch Ratings, in leaving its rating unchanged, did Bellone a solid by revising its outlook for Suffolk to stable from negative.

In short, it ends up being a mixed bag. And things likely won't get easier anytime soon.

Yesterday, Newsday reported that 20 percent of the county police department's car fleet is out of service because of a backlog in repairs -- a percentage that represents a six-year high. The situation also is keeping some cars off the road for significantly longer periods of time, according to a March 13 memo from Police Commissioner Edward Webber to the county legislature's Public Safety Committee.

Tom Melito, Suffolk's deputy county executive for performance management, said last week that the backlog, if unaddressed, could become a crisis. As it is, officials said, some officers have been forced to double up and patrol larger areas.

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What's happened? Money, or, specifically, a lack of it: Suffolk's public works department, until recently, was down 11 of 39 auto mechanics -- as a result of 2012 trims in the county workforce spurred by what was then a projected cumulative deficit of some $500 million.

Maintaining needed levels of services -- like having enough police cars on hand to patrol county streets -- while cutting costs and harvesting new revenue is tough.

For now, Bellone is making adjustments, even as he takes a hit from Wall Street, and lawmakers are pressing Suffolk to reduce the police car repair backlog.

That's the job -- to deal with what's in front of them, and not blame others.

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