The hardest part starts now for Suffolk County executive-elect Steve Bellone.
After defeating Republican Angie Carpenter Tuesday night, the Democratic town supervisor from Babylon must quickly turn his attention to a number of major challenges that will put the county at least $13 million in the hole by the middle of next year.
"Right up until the polls close [on election night], you're working to get out the vote, meet as many voters as you can," Bellone said in an interview Wednesday. "Then in the span of a couple of hours, you win and you realize, 'Now this is my responsibility, all these problems the county faces,' " he said.
"It is somewhat daunting. But at the same time, I'm excited about the challenge."
Legislators and union officials Wednesday identified five key issues, including the fate of the county nursing home and upcoming union contracts, that Bellone needs to focus on as soon as possible:
County lawmakers Wednesday night approved a budget covering only the first six months of 2012 -- and under the $2.7 billion spending plan, Bellone and lawmakers will have to come up with at least $13 million to pay county workers after June 30. Bellone could face difficult choices, including having to press for concessions from labor unions that supported his campaign.
Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) said the legislature's approach buys Bellone "enough time to plug all the holes." Bellone agreed. "The biggest challenge right now is how do we solve this fiscal problem in the county right from the very beginning," he said.
Said Legis. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches): "This is a year that's going to be miserable for him because we're going to be dealing with the budget at every meeting," said Romaine.
In the short term, Bellone said he'd consider "one-shots" including the sale of county properties to bring in one-time revenues. Bellone said he also would seek relief from unfunded state mandates. One of the larger ones stems from a state correction commission decision to withdraw variances that allowed Suffolk to exceed jail occupancy limits while a new $156-million jail is built. According to Levy, the move is forcing Suffolk to spend $500,000 per month to send inmates to facilities outside the county.
Bellone said he'd ask county unions to help find cost savings next year. Levy, a Republican who did not seek re-election, had pressed county workers to begin paying a share of their health insurance, though the legislative budget approved Wednesday didn't include the requirement.
Bellone on Wednesday stopped short of saying he'd press for health care concessions from county unions, many of which supported him. "I'm not going to prejudge. Clearly, we need to reduce costs to deal with the budget crisis," he said.
Police Benevolent Association vice president Noel DiGerolamo said the union would work with Bellone. The PBA, which endorsed Bellone for county executive, "has never turned away from assisting the county even during difficult fiscal times," DiGerolamo said.
John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility:
While Levy has long sought to close the Yaphank facility to save money, the legislative budget plan would keep the facility open through midyear.
Bellone was noncommital about the future of the 264-bed home, saying he'd review ways to fund health care and other services. "We will try to make it work," he said of the nursing home. "They are the most vulnerable people in the county. But I think it would be a mistake to view Foley in a vacuum or in isolation from an overall health care strategy."
Relationship with the legislature:
Bellone as town supervisor had the advantage of a solidly Democratic town board. But he'll have to work to build coalitions in the divided Suffolk legislature. Coming into Tuesday's election, Democrats and their allies held a 12-6 advantage over Republicans. As of Wednesday, Republicans were refusing to concede in three tight races in districts now in the Democratic column.
Bellone said he has met with Democratic legislators and plans to meet with Republican lawmakers before taking office. "The issues we're dealing with [are] not a partisan problem. We'll work together to actually try to solve the problems."
Bellone called the debate over patrolling the highways, a "side show issue," and said he'll "provide leadership from the top to say we won't engage in this nonsense."
DiGerolamo stopped short of saying Bellone could bridge the divide over highway patrols. But he said he was heartened by Bellone's pledge not to pit the law enforcement agencies against each other.
With Paul LaRocco