Legislators scrap Bellone budget-balance plan

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Suffolk lawmakers have rejected County Executive Steve Bellone's plan to defer about $33 million in debt repayments as a way to help balance next year's budget, calling the initiative -- which is dependent on state approval -- too risky.

Instead, they said they'll try to pay for the county's debt service spike by tapping a special reserve fund meant to stabilize sewer district rates, a move that is raising environmentalists' ire.

County legislative leaders Monday unveiled a series of amendments to Bellone's $2.76 billion spending plan for 2014. The full legislature will vote Wednesday on the changes, which also include several funding restorations for nonprofits.

Key components of Bellone's budget will be unchanged, including a general fund tax freeze; a 2.34 percent increase in the police district tax for Suffolk's five western towns; and $17.1 million in projected revenue from selling the shuttered John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility property in Yaphank.

But lawmakers said they were uncomfortable with the debt restructuring plan -- one of the largest deficit-closing measures from Bellone, a Democrat -- because it would be dependent on state approval. It would have pushed off a $32.8 million increase in debt payments next year, at greater future costs.

"We felt strongly that it may be the wrong way to go," said Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "It was not a good deal for the county."

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Suffolk's assessment stabilization reserves, which would be tapped to pay the debt increase, are funded by a portion of the quarter-cent sales tax meant for drinking water protection purposes. The fund will still maintain a $102 million balance even after losing $32.8 million for debt, and another $5 million for sewer infrastructure grants.

Replenishment of the reserves used next year would begin in 2017, officials said.

"This would seem to be a reasonable way to go," said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider of the legislative amendments, adding that he didn't foresee Bellone vetoing the actions.

But Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper said lawmakers are illegally balancing the budget with funds restricted for water quality purposes. "They might as well rob a bank," he said.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said he's unsure how he'll vote on the amendments, largely because the process -- dominated by the Democratic majority -- doesn't occur in the open or allow enough time for review before being finalized.

"We have to do something to make this process more transparent," Cilmi said Monday.

Among other amendments that the legislature will consider is the restoration of $1.6 million of the roughly $3 million that Bellone cut from nonprofit contract agencies. Legislators said they targeted those helping needy or ill residents, such as a suicide prevention hotline, local food pantries and support groups for AIDS patients. Also on the table is the return of top-level staff salaries for the treasurer's department, which Bellone omitted from his budget on the assumption his referendum to merge the department with the comptroller would pass. The measure was knocked off of the ballot after a court challenge.

It will also consider increasing projected revenue from sales tax and the county's new traffic violations bureau by about $5 million each.

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