Police district taxes up in proposed Suffolk budget

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone releases and talks Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone releases and talks about the county's budget at his office in the Dennision Buiding in Hauppauge. (Sept. 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's 2014 budget reduces spending to its lowest level in three years, but would increase police district taxes and defer ballooning debt payments to help close an estimated $180 million deficit.

Bellone unveiled his $2.76 billion spending plan Friday. He said the budget would continue a freeze in general fund taxes and include cost-cutting measures such as the privatization of more county health clinics, while avoiding layoffs.

Among new initiatives is the transfer of full-time park police officers to the Suffolk Police Department and their replacement with seasonal rangers and security staff. The move, estimated to save $1 million next year, requires state approval.

"The battles we have fought, the tough decisions we have made, are starting to produce results for the taxpayer," Bellone said Friday in an interview. He said he had reduced spending by $22 million compared with his 2013 budget, despite increases of $37 million since 2012 in mandated costs.

But rising police costs, including the planned hiring of 60 new officers to maintain staffing levels, resulted in a 2.34 percent increase in the police district tax in Suffolk's five western towns.

The total county tax bill for the average district homeowner would increase by $20.65, to $1,015.80. The administration noted that overall the budget falls within the state's 1.66 percent property tax cap.

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The County Legislature will review Bellone's proposal and hold hearings in October. Lawmakers will vote on the budget, including any revisions, on Nov. 6, after Election Day.

"I'm happy to see we've made some progress in dealing with our fiscal challenges. I continue to be concerned, however, about an overreliance on borrowing to solve our immediate budget problems," said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), referring to the debt deferral proposal. "We cannot continue to burden the future with expenses we incur today."

The state would need to approve Bellone's plan to restructure county debt obligations. His proposal would defer a scheduled $32.8 million increase in debt repayments set for next year, and allow up to another $147 million due in 2015 and 2016 to be pushed back by 12 years.

"We're not in structural balance yet, clearly," Bellone said.

After Suffolk ended 2012 with a deficit of $155 million, county leaders estimated that the shortfall would climb to $250 million by the end of 2014 if no action was taken. Improved sales tax figures recently prompted officials to lower the estimate to $180 million.

Bellone says his 2014 budget would close the remainder of that hole, if sales tax revenue keeps growing. Suffolk is estimating an additional $59 million in sales receipts next year from economic activity related to superstorm Sandy recovery.

The budget projects growth of 3.88 percent in sales tax revenue next year.

Bellone noted that the county will be less reliant on "one shot" revenuein 2014 compared with this year. He credited a reduction in the annual payroll of about $100 million since he took office, much of it due to layoffs.

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Legislative deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) praised Bellone's budget for avoiding further layoffs, after nearly 500 workers lost their jobs to cuts since 2012.

"That was our biggest concern from the get-go," Horsley said. "Otherwise, expenditures are down and sales tax is up. The deficit is coming down."


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BELLONE'S BUDGET PROPOSAL

Key elements of the 2014 budget submitted Friday by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone:

Total spending: $2.76 billion, down .8 percent from 2013

Property taxes: 2.34 percent increase for the county police district -- a $20.65 rise for the average homeowner. Brookhaven, Huntington, Smithtown, Islip and Babylon residents pay police district taxes. County general fund tax remains unchanged. Overall, budget is within the 1.66 percent state tax cap

Sales taxes: Estimated growth of 6.7 percent in 2013, much of it due to spending related to superstorm Sandy recovery, and 3.9 percent growth in 2014

Savings: $3 million from continued privatization of county health clinics; $32.8 million from deferring debt payments, pending state approval

Revenues: $4 million from new electronic slot machine hall to open next September; estimated $15 million increase in traffic ticket and red-light camera receipts

Source: Suffolk County Executive

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