Days before becoming Suffolk's first new county executive in eight years, Steve Bellone says he still doesn't know what numbers to trust on the county budget.
But he's determined to find out -- fast.
In wide-ranging interviews last week, Bellone portrayed the disputed budget hole as the most urgent issue he'll tackle after his inauguration Friday, as he tries to set a course and tone different from his predecessor, Republican Steve Levy.
Bellone promised to work to avoid layoffs and tax hikes, revamp management of the more than 2,700-officer police department and eradicate gangs.
Bellone said he expects to find a budget hole, and that he'll appoint an outside review panel to determine its size and report to him by late January. Levy says his 2012 spending plan was balanced, while county legislators say he left a $100-million hole.
Whatever the panel's findings, Bellone said he expects the county workforce to shrink through attrition, early retirements or, as a last resort, layoffs.
"We have a moment of opportunity here, I think, given the fiscal crisis we are facing, to justify a real re-examination of how we are delivering services to the people of the county," the Democrat said.
Bellone, 42, indicated he's likely to resist pressure from unions to restore the 88 county jobs the legislature eliminated in its 2012 budget, saying he'll focus on the more than 600 positions funded only through June. He said asking union members to contribute to their health care -- something Levy long supported -- would be "on the table."
"The last thing in the world I want to do is lay anyone off," Bellone said. "But we have to deal with the math and we have to deal with the numbers. And this government is in need of a major restructuring."
Bellone said that in Babylon, where he has served as supervisor since 2001, the town payroll shrank without layoffs. He emphasized that the county's long-term fiscal health depends on working with the state to reduce mandates for services, and focusing on capital projects that produce revenue.
"When you apply leadership and real management to these departments, and look at different innovations and approaches, there will be a way, without a doubt, to streamline government," he said.
Bellone said he didn't anticipate asking the state to increase the county sales tax. But he said the reliance on that revenue stream, coupled with ever-increasing employee pension costs, means the fiscal outlook may remain bleak.
Levy has often said that the only way to control those costs long-term is to cut the number of county employees, or gain significant concessions from public employee unions.
"Unless there's an economic miracle, which I don't think anyone is anticipating, the hole in 2013 is going to be much larger than what we're facing in 2012," Bellone said.
Addressing the police department, Bellone blamed management failures for what he described as low officer morale, strained relations with immigrant communities and the failure to get rid of gangs.
"People need to be motivated and feeling good about what they do," he said. "They need to have direction, they need to have leadership, and these are things that have been absent."
Bellone repeated promises to appoint a police commissioner who will hold precinct and unit commanders accountable and expand community policing -- a focus on proactive, trust-building patrols and programs -- which he said is lacking in some neighborhoods.
"We need to bring in a lot of other areas of the county government to develop an overall comprehensive strategy to pull people out of gangs," he said, noting that cooperation is needed between police, probation and social services agencies. "This is not rocket science; this is management."
"We are going to eliminate these gangs plaguing our communities," Bellone promised, saying he'd use crime data to deploy resources.
Bellone also questioned the constitutionality and effectiveness of barring gang members from gathering in public. Levy and outgoing police Commissioner Richard Dormer have proposed such an initiative in Wyandanch, but civil libertarians have sued, saying the action violates individuals' rights to free association.
Overall, Levy defends his management of the police department. He said he and Dormer oversaw a double-digit drop in crime since 2004, and that redeployment of highway patrol officers using civilians for nonpatrol duties saved taxpayers money. His critics are bitter that management reclaimed control of the department from the powerful police unions, Levy said.
"We controlled costs and lowered crime," Levy said Tuesday. "Why would you want to undo that?"
'Stain on the county'
But Bellone said the department has deep problems.
"It is a stain on the county that the Justice Department continues to investigate the police department," Bellone said.
In a September letter to police, federal officials urged improved cultural training for officers and more translators to aid Hispanic residents. Levy responded that many of the proposed reforms were already in place.
But Bellone said the federal suggestions would be priorities of a new police administration. Bellone has launched a nationwide search for a police commissioner.
"The only way for us to accomplish these goals is to change the way we do policing and do it much more effectively," Bellone said. "And ultimately we'll have a police commissioner who will hold his commanders accountable in the process to solve these problems, and I will hold the police commissioner accountable to solve these problems."
Working with legislature
Bellone also said he'd take a different tack than Levy in dealing with the county legislature. Levy often battled fiercely with lawmakers who opposed his measures, calling it necessary to overcome special interests and protect taxpayers.
While Bellone predicted his relationship with lawmakers wouldn't be "all rose petals and champagne," he said he won't attack those who oppose him.
"I think you need to build relationships; talk to people consistently," he said. "Not demonize people because they differ from you in opinion."
But Bellone noted that, when necessary, he can fight. He cited the 2007 lawsuit Babylon initiated against the U.S. Postal Service over a proposed Wyandanch post office with barbed-wire fencing and bulletproof windows.
The town supervisor said the facility's design and location hurt the hamlet's revitalization efforts -- and that he only sued after nine months of talks didn't yield a deal.
"But it should be the last resort," Bellone said, "because every time you fight, you are wasting resources."
Suffolk County Executive-elect Steve Bellone is scheduled to be sworn in Friday at 11 a.m. at Van Nostrand Theatre, Suffolk Community College, 1001 Crooked Hill Rd., Brentwood.The legislature's top official, Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), is already praising Bellone for seeking an independent report on the size of the county budget deficit.
"I think we have a major problem," Lindsay said. "And the best I way I know to solve a problem is to identify what it is and stop all of the nonsense that's gone on over the years."
Lindsay recalled that after a sobering meeting earlier this month with the legislature's budget review office, he joked with Bellone that that he hopes he "doesn't walk away" from the county executive's job.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said Bellone may benefit from his newcomer status, even under immediate pressure to fund the six-month employees.
"He brings no baggage to the effort to fix things," Levy said. "And the need to act can be used as a way of motivating the political and government establishment. He can use it as a tool, or even a weapon, if he needs to."
"We have major problems everywhere you look," Bellone said of the budget and other issues. "But as someone who believes in the power of government to affect peoples lives, it is exciting. You can bring about real change that will have an impact on our communities."