Analysis: Suffolk budget makes 'best of bad situation,' could create $50M shortfall

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, joined by Presiding Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, joined by Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley and Democratic Legislators and candidates, at a press conference in Hauppauge, NY (Oct. 17, 2013) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's 2014 budget makes "the best of a bad situation," but still counts on speculative measures that could create a new $50 million shortfall if they aren't realized, according to legislative budget analysts.

The county legislature's Budget Review Office on Friday released its analysis of Bellone's $2.76 billion proposal, which reduces overall spending by $22 million from 2013 and raises police district taxes in the five western towns by 2.34 percent, or $20.65 for the average district homeowner.

Robert Lipp, budget review director, said one of his chief concerns is the administration's reliance on $32.8 million in savings from deferring county debt repayments, an action that requires state approval.

Lipp also raised questions about Bellone's expectation of $17.1 million from the sale of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility property in Yaphank, noting that officials haven't identified a buyer or use for the site. He also said the spending plan underfunded the county treasurer's department by $833,000 in anticipation of a merger referendum that failed to make the ballot.

"They do not represent a deficit, but rather a risk of deficit," Lipp wrote of the measures.

Lipp said Suffolk has controlled costs by shedding about 1,000 positions over the past 21 months through attrition, layoffs and retirement incentives. But the county still faces a structural imbalance brought on by stopgap measures such as repeated borrowing to stem sharp increases in Suffolk's annual pension bill, he added.

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The report also notes that county sales tax revenue could exceed Bellone's projections by $5 million, and that a new county traffic violations bureau could bring in an additional $5 million over the administration's estimates.

The budget "has arguably made the best of a bad situation," Lipp said. "Our fiscal problems are so large it would be unfair to think [it] could solve them all in one year."

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider agreed that Suffolk can't solve all of its problems in a single budget.

"We're digging out of an accumulated hole, and appreciate that they've noted we're making progress," Schneider said.

Schneider said the administration is confident it will get state approval for debt restructuring. He noted that the state had approved installation of video slot terminals, budgeted to generate $4 million in 2014, and the sale/lease-back of the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. That plugged a $70 million hole this year, but will cost the county $26 million in interest over the next 20 years.

Bellone's office said the sale of the Foley property would net only $3.2 million in 2014, as most revenue would go toward repaying the operating subsidy the county had provided the nursing home.

"There are holes, no two ways about it," said Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), the minority leader. He called budgeting Foley sale revenue "foolish" and said the spending plan includes "many, many wildly speculative things."

Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) acknowledged "some of these items might be speculative. But we're already looking at the numbers, and as a county, I think we're in better shape than last year."

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