Suffolk deficit cutting won't be enough

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) Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

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In the past two weeks, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone sent layoff notices to 315 workers, won approval to compel political appointees to pay up to 25 percent of their health insurance and got county lawmakers to endorse his deficit-reduction plan unanimously.

But when Bellone appears before Wall Street rating agencies Monday for an annual review, he will have to tell them that for all his labors so far, Suffolk is still far from closing its looming $530 million budget chasm.

In part, it is because Bellone inherited a $60 million deficit -- double what he had anticipated. While layoffs will save $11.4 million this year and $24 million next year, those savings were already included in the 2012 budget and do nothing to narrow the shortfall.

Bellone's deficit-cutting plan, which needs time to gear up, will only close $20 million of the estimated $149 million hole for this year, aides said. Because some parts still need state or local legislation, his plan only deals with $136.4 million of next year's $350 million gap. The unanticipated $30 million deficit from last year, plus the gaps this year and in 2013, mean that the county still has a $373 million shortfall to close.

"I know there's been exasperation with the tough decisions we've had to make," Bellone said. "But this is only the beginning . . . the most difficult challenges lie ahead."

Bellone last week asked legislative leaders to begin meetings on a phase II deficit plan, even as his staff works to implement cuts already approved and prepares to start work next month on a 2013 budget.

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Republicans say Bellone, who has been in office since Jan. 1, has often made budget decisions, including layoffs, in haste without understanding their impact. They say he has failed to back big-ticket solutions that could ease the county's cash crunch without devastating services.

"I'm concerned the rating agencies will feel not enough has been done," said Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches). "Mr. Bellone is not producing the type of savings he needs."

Minority Leader John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said Bellone needs to embrace larger proposals including the sale-leaseback of the H. Lee Dennison Building, potentially worth $50 million; the sale of county tax liens and creation of a county sewer authority.

"If we are tinkering around the edges, we're never going to get there," Kennedy said.

Bellone backers say the new Democratic county executive has tried methodically to recast and downsize county government that for too long has used one-shot revenue to offset structural imbalances. They say GOP lawmakers have proposed only one-time revenue as solutions.

"He's tracking the issues one by one but there's only so many avenues you can approach at any point in time," said Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon).

Bellone emphasized that initiatives such as last week's measure to impose up to a 25 percent share of health insurance costs on 500 political appointees, for savings of $1.4 million, is only the first step toward getting the 11 county unions to make like concessions. Bellone is hoping for $32 million from labor.

"The only way to avoid additional layoffs is if we come together and share in that sacrifice," Bellone said.

Thomas Breeden, union co-chairman of the board that oversees Suffolk's self-insured health plan, noted that unions already had taken large cuts in benefits, worth $15 million a year.

"The problem is that we've already given a lot . . . but it's never enough and we never got any credit for what we did," Breeden said. "Now we have nothing to give away, except things that are very painful."

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