Suffolk ends 2012 with $155.5M deficit

Steve Bellone addresses residents of Huntington Station as Steve Bellone addresses residents of Huntington Station as part of a listening tour. (April 22, 2013) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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Suffolk County ended 2012 with a deficit of $155.5 million, far deeper in the hole than when County Executive Steve Bellone took office.

However, Comptroller Joseph Sawicki said the county this year has borrowed $37 million to fund a correction officers arbitration award that was on the books last year, and will sell a $19.25-million parcel in Yaphank. That will make for an "adjusted" 2012 deficit of $99.2 million, when combined with the $59.6-million gap left over from 2011, Sawicki said.

It is the first time in more than two decades that Suffolk has had two consecutive deficits. The county ran deficits from 1989 to 1992, hitting a high of $99.3 million in 1991.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider noted that Bellone, who took office in January 2012, inherited a $60-million budget gap from 2011.

"What we inherited was a $60-million deficit and a budget that had more holes than Swiss cheese," Schneider said.

He noted the administration has cut 700 jobs and created a new traffic bureau to increase revenues, and a police contract settlement saved $40 million in retroactive raises.

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"We've done a lot of things to get the budget in balance, but there is a major structural issue to deal with, and we still have a lot of work to do," Schneider said.

But Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) called the 2012 results "very disappointing."

"We've made all these changes -- laid off people, sold assets -- and it doesn't seem to help," Lindsay said.

Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader, urged lawmakers to back his resolution to cut spending by 15 percent. Bellone aides have said such a step would shut down government.

"It's time for us to get serious," Kennedy said. "Almost a half-year has come and gone, and it seems like behavior has not changed."

In the 2013 operating budget, Bellone and the Suffolk Legislature had projected a $63.2-million deficit at the end of 2012.

Nassau Comptroller George Maragos has not yet released his county's year-end numbers.

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The largest part of the deficit is a $15-million shortfall in property tax collections. Sales taxes came in $9 million below budget estimates.

Sawicki labeled the land sale and correction officers arbitration award as "material timing differences" that affected deficit numbers under accounting rules. He said Suffolk already has issued five-year bond anticipation notes to fund the mandated pay increases for correction officers. Sale of Yaphank land to Brookhaven Rail Terminal has been delayed by a lawsuit brought by local civic leaders, he said.

The comptroller's year-end numbers are a compilation of all costs and expenses connected with the 2012 budget. The accounting firm of Ernst and Young will audit the numbers and produce an official county financial statement by mid-June.

The comptroller's preliminary numbers will be included in the county's bond prospectus for $62 million in borrowing for capital projects in June. County officials also will appear next week before Wall Street rating agencies, which have expressed growing concerns about county finances. Sawicki predicted that deliberations on the 2014 budget will be "very tough," and said Bellone and lawmakers must close the hole by next year. "Everyone has to come together to make difficult decisions in the past, and I'm sure they will do it again," Sawicki said.

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