Bellone takes pages from Levy playbook

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announces a tentative Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announces a tentative agreement to sell Foley nursing home in Yaphank on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 in Hauppauge, New York. (Photo by Howard Schnapp) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy was a prime target for Steve Bellone as he campaigned to succeed him in 2011.

Levy, a Republican whose combative nature made him unpopular with county legislators of both parties, actively pressed to close Suffolk's public nursing home and to force towns to pay the county's annual bill for students who attend outside community colleges. A few years prior, he had also tried to merge the independently elected offices of treasurer and comptroller.

Bellone, a Democrat, repeatedly criticized the first two moves throughout his campaign, and upon his victory, he told his Republican opponent, county Treasurer Angie Carpenter, that he wouldn't merge her job with the comptroller's.

In his first 20 months, however, Bellone has adopted Levy's positions on those issues, and resembled his predecessor in pitting himself against county workers in efforts such as the privatization of health clinics. He also recently, for the first time, turned to a Levy staple: vetoing a legislative bill to send a message about overspending.

For all of this, Bellone has used Suffolk's multimillion-dollar budget gap as justification.

Reception mixed

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Legislative critics say Bellone's embrace of Levy positions he once derided highlights a lack of principle. Others, including top-level Democrats, note that Bellone inherited a 2011 deficit of $60 million -- with predictions the hole would grow by $470 million in subsequent years -- and that the dire situation demanded the flexibility he has shown.

On his embrace of Levy stances, Bellone said: "My view coming in was I'd take a fresh look at issues. Obviously, I didn't know the deficit's size."

Levy, a former Democrat who switched to the GOP in 2010, quipped: "We were starting to think they must have found our playbook under one of the tables on the 12th floor" -- a reference to the executive's offices in the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.

Bruce Berg, a Fordham University political science professor, said that when two foes are relative moderates -- such as Levy and Bellone -- adopting each other's positions, despite previously taking contrary stances, is not very unusual.

"Criticizing someone for a set of policies and then proposing the same policies may appear shameless to the lay person, but it's become the stock and trade of partisan politics in the 21st century," Berg said.

Comparisons abound

Bellone defends his changes on the issues, pointing out the many ways he still differs from Levy -- mainly, his more cooperative tone means he's accomplished things Levy couldn't.

Merging the comptroller and treasurer, which the county legislature blocked in 2006, would save $833,000 next year by cutting five management jobs, Bellone said. Legislators last month approved putting a referendum on the November ballot to authorize the move, despite loud protests by Carpenter.

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Closing the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank in June, over objections of the county's municipal union and a handful of lawmakers, will save up to $12 million a year in operating expenses, according to the administration.

In a failed effort earlier this year to persuade some lawmakers to remove roadblocks to his first preference -- the $23 million sale or lease of the home to private operators -- Bellone had taken a page from the Levy playbook, telling legislators who opposed him they'd have to "face voters" if the home closed and the county lost the revenue.

Levy, in budgeting for the home's closure in 2011, similarly challenged opposing lawmakers to explain to taxpayers their desire to restore millions in spending during tight economic times.

Another change of heart

Bellone, during his 2011 campaign, had said the county had "an obligation" to Foley patients, and that he didn't see closing it. He criticized Levy for creating a "mess," telling residents that Levy was playing a "game of political football for the advancement of political interests."

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And in forcing Suffolk's 10 towns to pay for a portion of this year's bill for out-of-county community college tuition -- saving $3.4 million -- Bellone justified his change of heart by saying the towns had handled the charges well in 2011. When Levy first made the proposal, Bellone joined town supervisors to say the charge-backs "make no sense."

But Bellone said he was able to close Foley and secure a referendum on merging the comptroller and treasurer's offices -- which Levy failed to do -- while still improving relations with county and Albany lawmakers, who had fought with Levy over issues including immigration. Those improved relationships helped his administration, Bellone said, gain legislative support for deficit-cutting measures such as privatizing county health clinics, opening a new local traffic violations bureau and installing new video slot terminals to bring in gambling revenues.

And even when Bellone channeled Levy in vetoing a bipartisan bill to increase local emergency dispatch centers this summer, it was only his first of 2013. Levy vetoed 71 bills during his final year in office, 2011.

'You never know'

But Legislative Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said Bellone played politics like Levy by withholding district-specific spending in his capital budget as punishment for lawmakers who opposed the nursing home sale and has often ignored procedures that ensure transparency and public debate, such as the legislative committee process.

"He has no hesitation to make campaign promises or platitudes, and now, he can't run away from them fast enough," Kennedy said.

"Most voters are moderate, and give elected officials the benefit of the doubt to be able to change their minds and take a closer look at things," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works primarily with Republicans. "I think they'll give an official credit for that. Only extremists of both parties hold people to a standard of blind allegiance."

Majority Leader DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said Bellone shouldn't be faulted for taking stances he has criticized because of county finances. Gregory noted that Bellone first opposed legislative Republicans' idea of selling and leasing back the Dennison building to plug a $70 million budget hole, embracing it when other available cuts fell through.

"I don't envy the position he's in," Gregory said. "That's the nature of campaigns. It's difficult to make promises or criticisms, because you never know what's going to happen."

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