Steve Bellone faces tougher road in closing Suffolk's budget deficit
With less than a month until his 2014 budget is due, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has yet to indicate how he'll close a deficit projected at $180 million.
At this point last summer, as he prepared his first spending plan, Bellone's biggest deficit-cutting initiatives were already known. He had announced intentions to sell the county nursing home for $23 million, borrow $67 million to offset pension increases, and enter a pact with police officers that promised to save $43 million upfront -- though increase future costs.
More harsh spending cuts haven't been ruled out for the 2014 budget, but county legislators, in an election year, may not support such a move after 1,005 workers already have left the payroll (nearly half by layoffs) over the past 20 months. Heading into 2013, Suffolk faced a roughly $300 million budget gap.
"The second and third years after big cutbacks and retrenchment is often harder, because you've picked the low-hanging fruit," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "You've made the relatively easy cuts, you've used all the gimmicks, and now, anything you do will cause a furor somewhere."
Tough choices ahead
Bellone said the projected deficit, tabbed in March at $250 million, has fallen to $180 million because of factors that include better-than-expected sales tax growth and the continued decrease in payroll. Nearly a third of the county workers cut by layoffs and attrition under Bellone have left in recent months, most from the shuttering of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank after its sale fell through.
"What I've continued to say is that we're still in the middle of a fiscal crisis, and unless we want to continue down the path other municipalities have taken -- sinking deeper into crisis -- we need to continue with aggressive action," Bellone said. "We've made progress, but the crisis is so deep that we have to continue to find ways to increase efficiency."
The gap remains daunting, and Bellone wouldn't say whether his budget would try to help close it by asking Albany for an increase to the county sales tax rate. Some lawmakers have suggested the action as a way to avoid further spending cuts.
Improved sales tax receipts and better revenue projections from a new traffic violations bureau have contributed $23.5 million to the lower deficit projection, but have been offset by unexpected cost increases, such as $10 million for employee health care.
Further, one of the more significant new revenue measures Bellone announced in advance of his mid-September budget deadline -- building a video slot machine parlor -- is now being counted on to bring in only $4 million in 2014, and not beginning until September.
Another highly publicized initiative, merging the elected offices of Suffolk's treasurer and comptroller, is dependent on a ballot measure, and would save only $833,000 in 2014.
Cuts draw criticism
Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), the legislative minority leader, has been critical of the way Bellone has approached shrinking the size of the workforce, though he and other GOP lawmakers say they still support small government.
"We're taking a meat cleaver to essential functions," Kennedy said, noting cuts to public health nursing and environmental monitoring last year and Bellone's new proposal to cancel Suffolk's contract with its fire training firm in favor of using in-house staff. "I don't know why he would expect to get something other than full-blown opposition to misguided elimination of services."
But Bellone said the GOP has yet to provide him with specific proposals to cut the deficit.
"Some people refuse to acknowledge the crisis we're in. Every initiative we put forward to make this government more efficient, we get incredible pushback," Bellone said.
He then alluded to lawmakers' re-election campaigns: "It'll be interesting to see who's talking about fiscal responsibility this fall."
The $2.7 billion 2013 budget, despite last year's cuts, still needed a $70 million "one-shot" revenue source: the sale and lease-back of a county building that Bellone once opposed. Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), a member of lawmakers' budget working group, said he hoped that such measures wouldn't be leaned on too heavily this year.
"I think we have to go into this with the same mindset we've had the past few years, which has been to do our best to live within our means," said D'Amaro, adding that he wouldn't favor many initiatives that didn't provide recurring revenue or savings. "Not only should we not be relying on 'one shots' as much as we have in the past, but we're also pretty much out of 'one shots.' "