Bellone's budget plan gets mixed response

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge. (July

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge. (July 31, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's proposed 2013 budget and other cost-cutting measures appear to have whittled away at a nearly $500 million projected budget gap, but the county still isn't in the clear, according to budget experts.

Suffolk's use of "one-shot" sources of revenue to balance the 2013 budget, including the $20 million sale of county property in Yaphank, could keep the county from running a deficit next year, experts said. But the county will have to consider finding new revenue or additional cuts for the next budget.

"Suffolk is still not out of the woods yet, nor should it expect to be in one year," said Michael Wasylenko, senior associate dean of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. "It's too jarring of a deficit. We're going to see this be an issue for one or two years."

"Local governments are in a holding pattern," Wasylenko added. "If the economy improves, then counties like Suffolk can resume some sort of budget flow that goes back to normal. . . . I think their budget looks sensible. Does it solve their entire problems? No. But it moves them forward."

Bellone spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said the administration had to "take the opportunity to use some one-time revenue sources. We had to address the budget facing us, but going forward, we know we will have to be vigilant about cutting expenses where we can."

Bellone's $2.77 billion budget proposal, released Friday, freezes the county's general fund property tax rate, but also includes a 2.6 percent tax hike for county police service.

The spending plan, which will require legislative approval, includes $70 million from a sale-leaseback of the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge -- a one-time cash infusion requiring state approval.

But Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said, "There's a difference between balancing a budget for a single year, which can be accomplished with one-shot revenues such as the sale of a major property, and achieving long-term structural balance."

To address some of the Suffolk's long-term expenses, Bellone slashed 658 county positions this year through layoffs, attrition and early-retirement incentives for a projected $65.3 million in labor savings. The current budget calls for no layoffs.

Budget experts say other "one-shots" used to close the projected gap, such as delaying pension payments and borrowing to buy county vehicles, are still obligations county taxpayers will have to pay back in the future.

"Maybe you won't pay now, but you'll pay more later as a result," said Donald Boyd, senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany.

Boyd, who also serves as executive director of the Task Force on the State Budget Crisis, a national panel which has studied the toll of the recession on local governments, said it was "impractical" to believe Suffolk could clear a $500 million deficit in one year without delaying certain expenses.

"Even if you're a skeptic, it doesn't mean they haven't done substantial things to address their budget issues," he said.

Boyd said the county should continue putting out multiyear financial projections to "shed light on and address more longer-term problems."

While projections for the budget deficit have fluctuated this year anywhere from $400 million to $500 million, Levy said the county needs to "make sure they're really realizing the projected savings."

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