Suffolk exec Steve Bellone's first year defined by Sandy, budget crisis, police contract
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Steve Bellone hadn't meant for his first major news conference as Suffolk County executive to announce a crisis -- but he no longer had a choice.
It was last March 6, and an expert panel he'd convened had just told the county legislature that a multiyear budget deficit first pegged at $150 million could reach $530 million.
Bellone stood in a cramped legislative office and declared a fiscal emergency. He said he might be able to save some of the 464 county workers set to be laid off, but not all of them.
"This is absolutely devastating and gut-wrenching," Bellone, a Democrat, told reporters who had crowded into the room to hear his impromptu news conference.
From then on in his first year as county executive -- as he faced the deficit, wildfires and superstorm Sandy's aftermath -- it was "one crisis after another," Bellone recently recalled.
"Sometimes I felt like a triage doctor, just deciding, 'OK, which is the worst crisis today.' "
Bellone had promised during his 2011 election campaign to get a fix on the size of Suffolk's budget deficit, overhaul the police department and mend his office's relationship with the Latino community, which fought fiercely with Republican County Executive Steve Levy over his hard-line stance against illegal immigration.
In rating Bellone's performance in his first year, supporters pointed to his ability to work well with the legislature, which they say led to unanimous support for a long-term labor deal with police officers, and his immediate action on the budget deficit. Critics say he cut too many county jobs and moved to sell the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility, the county nursing home, after campaigning that he would try everything to keep it in government hands. That effort to sell the nursing home has since stalled.
Bellone, 43, the former Babylon town supervisor, said he followed through on many of his campaign pledges.
He replaced top police brass as he moved to boost intelligence gathering about crime patterns, and noted that the new labor pact with patrol officers avoided arbitration and saved $43 million in 2013. He negotiated an agreement requiring all new county workers to pay into their health care for the first time and issued an executive order that mandates translation of essential county documents into six languages.
"He prevented the ship from sinking and he shored it up," said former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin, a Democrat who served from 1988 to 1991. "He received remarkable cooperation from both Democrats and Republicans. I give him very high marks for that."
But some county lawmakers said Bellone inflated the deficit figure to reduce resistance to cost-cutting moves. Other legislators expressed concern about the new police contract, noting that it will cost up to $269 million more over eight years.
Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) said he doubted the Bellone panel's near-no-growth assumptions about sales tax revenues that underpinned the $530 million deficit figure.
"I never agreed the number was real," Schneiderman said of the original estimates. "There were certainly assumptions built in I knew would never be realized."
Following are major issues that defined Bellone's first year:
County budget crisis
Spread out in Bellone's conference room in Hauppauge last spring were blueprints for ambitious developments of housing and retail. A white board attached to one wall displayed doodles by one of his two young daughters. But Bellone was focused on the board for another reason: It listed the titles of dozens of county jobs he was trying to save. A total of 464 were slated to be cut by summer, and Bellone would have to decide which would go.
The 8,700-member Association of Municipal Employees -- Suffolk's largest union -- was lobbying Bellone intensely to save all 464 county jobs.
Bellone in the end spared 201 positions that are funded largely by state or federal grants.
But almost a year later, union leaders remain alienated. They say Bellone could have saved dozens more jobs that also were funded by grants or produced county revenues.
No other county union lost jobs, and police officers later received a no-layoff guarantee as part of their new contract.
"I understand the mess he inherited, but I'm feeling like the redheaded stepchild," said AME president Dan Farrell, who represents 6,100 workers and 2,600 retirees. "They're trying to balance the budget [on] me and my members."
Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) said Bellone was too quick to lay off employees. "You take a look at all other areas and then do layoffs," Barraga said. "Their plan was, 'We'll do layoffs then everything else.' It was backward."
Bellone said he saved every position possible, but the county's budget problems made some layoffs unavoidable.
"When you're talking about people losing their jobs, there's no way that can be a process that people are happy with, or will applaud you for -- nor should they," Bellone said.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said Bellone was shrewd to quickly take on the fiscal crisis in March. Bellone soon proposed initial fixes, including $67 million in state borrowing to defer pension costs.
"He immediately established a sense of calm and order that made people feel confident at a time they were very shaken about the economy," Levy said.
But some Bellone critics questioned whether the $530 million deficit figure was inflated. They noted the administration was able to quickly whittle it to $300 million, largely because of sales tax revenues that beat projections.
"Within a couple a months $500 million went to $300 million to $150 million -- the numbers were all over the map," said Steve Levy. "That confirmed it was mostly politics."
Said Bellone: "Of course the numbers changed; they're estimates . . . But there's no doubt the deficit was in that range."
The Suffolk Police Benevolent Association -- one of Bellone's biggest financial supporters in his 2011 campaign -- had been without a contract for nearly two years. Its members wanted raises and to regain patrols on the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway that Levy had given to lower-paid sheriff's deputies in 2008.
Bellone and the PBA struck a deal in August that guaranteed current officers raises through 2020, which ultimately would have led to annual salaries of more than $200,000. Under public pressure, he brought down future top-step salary levels to about $175,000 by shortening the pact by two years.
Still, the contract will boost county spending by between $203 million and $268.7 million over eight years, according to administration and legislative budget analysts.
Steve Levy called the police contract, "a golden opportunity wasted. This was the one time you had the climate and leverage to get present-employee contributions" for health insurance -- now all county-paid -- "and that's where the big money is."
Bellone called it a landmark agreement that avoided binding arbitration, lowered the salary scale for new hires and for the first time required them to contribute to health care.
PBA president Noel DiGerolamo said each side made concessions. "Like with any negotiations, things can get rocky at times, but in the long-term he maintained composure and dealt with the issues based on facts," he said of Bellone.
But by returning the LIE and Sunrise to police, Bellone provoked the deputy sheriffs union, which has an ongoing lawsuit in State Supreme Court seeking $4 million in back pay it had deferred in exchange for Levy's pledge to keep them on the job. Union leaders didn't return calls for comment, but sheriff's chief Michael Sharkey said highway deputies "always provided professional service" on the highways.
Applause broke out on Nov. 13 as Bellone entered the makeshift disaster recovery center in the basement of Lindenhurst's Memorial Library, where dozens of people displaced by superstorm Sandy waited to get their federal aid requests processed.
Bellone only represented county government, but for people who were still without heat, power or both, he represented hope. Wearing a fleece jacket with his name on the front and toting an iPad to jot notes, he worked the room.
"You guys all have flooding?" Bellone asked. One woman gave a halfhearted thumbs up.
Another displaced resident, Jim Stramezzi of Lindenhurst, told Bellone: "I'm up to here with the federal government."
But while many residents around the county welcomed Bellone as he toured the county after Sandy, he drew criticism for waiting too long to impose rationing of gasoline.
"The lines were extraordinary, and something had to be done to reduce this compulsion that if you had less than a tank of gas and three hours to spend in a line, you needed to do it," said Halpin, while noting that Bellone still was able to "encourage people to show as much patience and civility as they could muster."
Bellone says a freak nor'easter suddenly worsened the gasoline shortage when it had appeared to be improving. Administration officials later acknowledged that they could have planned better for the possibility of gasoline shortages, and said that in the future they will consider initiatives such as setting aside generators for use by gas retailers.
"You can always criticize certain things, but the reality is that the county saw Mr. Bellone act in a very cautious, smart way, and show strong leadership," during Sandy, said the legislature's deputy presiding officer, Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "I've known him for many years, but this storm introduced the public to his ability to relate to people."
Bellone sees Sandy posing budget issues in 2013
Bellone said his major challenge in 2013 will be dealing with budget issues related to Sandy.
Within about a month after the storm, officials had already tallied $70 million in added county costs as a direct result.
The storm destroyed some 675 homes in Suffolk, property tax revenues could take a hit, though he had no specific estimates. He said sales tax revenues also could be affected because many residents haven't recovered: receipts were down 1.2 percent in December compared to December 2011, though they rose 1.6 percent in November.
The county budget otherwise remains tenuously balanced. It relies in part on the $23 million from the stalled nursing home sale and a $70 million plan to sell and lease back the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge that needs state legislative approval.
Bellone said he also will push to expand access to sewer service, now available in only about 30 percent of the county, to boost economic growth.
And he plans to unveil a plan to involve numerous county departments, beyond police and probation, to curb recidivism among criminals. He said he wants to examine the programs that aren't working well and "move our funding elsewhere."
Overall, Bellone said he wants to bring policy issues to a close more quickly. He cited the nursing home debate, which has gone on for 20 years and, he said, has cost Suffolk tens of millions of dollars in subsidies it pays annually to keep it open.
The onetime Army communications specialist compared his frustration with an aspect of basic training that he disliked. "The only thing ever bothered me is when they wasted your time -- the common phrase in the Army was, 'Hurry up and wait,' " he recalled.
"It always drove me crazy and this is probably the closest thing I've experienced to that time in basic training . . . because I look at the problems we have and they're enormous, in our region, and those are the problems we should be doing everything we can to focus our attention on and yet everything seems to drag out here."
BELLONE'S YEAR OF CHALLENGES
Replaces county police's top management; moves gang enforcement unit from headquarters to individual precincts.
Declares a fiscal emergency after an independent panel estimates Suffolk could face a deficit of as much as $530 million through 2013. Some county legislators call the estimate overblown, and by summer Bellone says various measures have reduced the gap to about $300 million.
Lays off nearly 300 county employees.
Announces a $23 million deal to sell the John J. Foley nursing home in Yaphank. Some lawmakers say Bellone sidestepped proper procedures in soliciting prospective buyers, but the sale is approved. Opponents file a lawsuit; the home remains open.
Proposes a $2.8 billion budget for 2013 with a 2.6 percent police district tax hike but no general fund tax increase. Bellone calls the plan balanced. However, it relies on $100 million in future revenues from the nursing home sale and the controversial sale and lease-back of another county building.
Bellone's eight-year labor agreement with the Police Benevolent Association gains legislative approval. It saves Suffolk $43 million in 2013, but will cost $268.7 million more over its life.
Leads county response to Sandy; severely criticizes Long Island Power Authority's performance. Legislative critics say he was slow to address the gasoline shortage. Issues executive order requiring county agencies to translate vital public documents into six languages, including Spanish, and provide interpreters to non-English speakers.