Storm recovery fund added to Bellone budget

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gives his first

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gives his first State of the County address in Hauppauge. (April 18, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas)

The Suffolk County Legislature amended County Executive Steve Bellone's $2.77 billion operating budget Wednesday, creating a $5 million storm recovery fund while adding money to pay for police equipment and rolling back proposed higher fees on gas station owners.

Lawmakers added $10.1 million to the proposed 2013 budget, but cut $6.7 million from 2012 expenditures for a net $3.4 million in extra spending. Officials said the increases were offset by higher revenue and reduced expense estimates, including reduced costs for foster care programs.

The legislature's tinkering on Bellone's $2.77 billion budget left unchanged the county executive's 2.6 percent increase in the police district property tax, which will raise the average homeowner's tax bill $27.70 next year. The police district consists of Suffolk's five western towns -- Brookhaven, Islip, Babylon, Huntington and Smithtown. The county general property taxes remained flat.

"This is a very sober budget in that it's realistic," said Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "The county executive gave us a plan and I believe we have enhanced it."

The bulk of the legislative changes came in two multipronged omnibus resolutions, one for mandated expenses, which was approved 14-4 and another for discretionary costs, which passed 15-3.

Among the amendments was a $5 million storm recovery fund to help pay the cost of superstorm Sandy and others such as yesterday's nor'easter that soaked the area with driving rains and snow. They also restored $2.3 million for health center operations and projected an additional $2.8 million in red light camera administrative fees.

In addition, the legislature rolled back $200,000 in new fees for gasoline stations, after Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-East Islip) said dealers were hit with hefty fee hikes earlier this year.

Jon Schneider, deputy county executive, said the administration will review the spending changes but could not say what if anything Bellone will veto. "We'll be reviewing several items in light of the fiscal situation we're in," he said. "Clearly it will take millions of dollars to deal with Sandy and this may help, especially if some of the costs are not fully reimbursable." Bellone has 10 days to issue vetoes and the legislature is scheduled to act on overrides by the Nov. 20 meeting.

The legislature also rejected several budget amendments, including a last-ditch effort to provide funds to run the county nursing home for several months next year in light of a lawsuit challenging the legality of the $23 million sale. They also voted down a proposal to impose a $10 fee for those visiting prisoners at the county jail.

Several lawmakers said the budget process has been far less contentious than with former County Executive Steve Levy and officials took steps to close a deficit earlier this year projected at $530 million. But legislative budget analysts cautioned the budget is balanced on $154 million in one-shot revenues, including $70 million sale-leaseback of the H. Lee Dennison building and $35 million borrowing to pay a correction officers arbitration award. "We're not out of the woods yet," said Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), "but we're two-thirds the way there."

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