Steve Bellone to unveil $2.77B budget plan

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge. (July Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge. (July 31, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone will unveil his first proposed operating budget Friday: a $2.77 billion spending package with no new layoffs, a freeze in general-fund property taxes and a $12.3 million hike in police district taxes in the five western towns.

The proposed budget will raise spending by $14.5 million -- .53 percent -- and close the county's deficit by the end of 2013, Bellone said. The proposal requires legislative approval.

"Six months ago we faced a half-a-billion-dollar deficit -- today we are offering a balanced budget," Bellone said in a statement. "Despite rising mandated costs, we will hold spending increases below 1 percent by making government more efficient and continuing the work of streamlining departments."

Bellone, who inherited a $60 million deficit upon taking office in January, had faced estimates of a 2011-13 budget shortfall of $420 million to as much as $530 million.

Bellone's proposed budget carries forward the 2011 deficit of $60 million, but lowers the projection of the current-year gap to $10 million. The new budget will close that total gap of $70 million by the end of 2013, Bellone aides said.

Officials said the 2012 shortfall has been reduced by 230 layoffs, and a reduction of another 428 jobs through retirement incentives and attrition. That has lowered the county payroll from 10,264 at the start of the year to about 9,600 now. Savings also have come from cutbacks in overtime.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the budget also will include initiatives to reduce the deficit through consolidating government services and increasing fees. "You're seeing the cumulative impact of running a very tight ship," Schneider said.

Initial reaction to the budget was mixed.

"The bones of this budget are sound," said Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "The budget has a less than 1 percent increase [in spending], which means we've come a long way to knocking down the deficit."

But Legis. John Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader, questioned the administration's taking credit for cutting back county services and encouraging workers to take early retirement -- and then dropping the demand that existing employees pay a portion of their health premiums.

"I think it's kind of tough to say 'Look what we did,' when they outright cut the heck out of county services and snookered many in the county workforce into leaving," Kennedy said.

Bellone's new budget also includes $43.7 million in estimated retroactive savings from a still-pending police union contract. But Fred Pollert, Bellone's chief budget aide, has estimated the police contract will increase costs by $4 million next year.

The budget also includes an estimated $17 million in union health care concessions, though county lawmakers have not yet ratified pacts with the unions.

The administration said the hike in police district taxes will allow the hiring of 75 officers but will not increase police staffing, since the cadets will replace officers who retire during 2013.

Bellone aides Thursday night could not estimate the percentage increase in the police tax or the average impact on a western Suffolk homeowner.

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