Suffolk lawmakers add $5M to Bellone budget

Budget analysts warned that Suffolk County Executive Steve Budget analysts warned that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's proposed 2013 budget is balanced on $210.4 million in one-shot revenue and savings, including the sale-lease back proposal, which would require state approval, as would a sales tax increase. (April 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Suffolk lawmakers said Monday that they'll leave County Executive Steve Bellone's 2013 budget proposal largely intact -- including his police district tax hike for the five western towns -- while adding $5 million for recovery efforts after superstorm Sandy.

The legislature's budget working group, made up primarily of Democrats, released amendments to the $2.77 billion spending plan that Bellone proposed in September. The legislature will vote on the budget at a meeting Wednesday.

Bellone's 2.6 percent police tax increase would raise the average district homeowner's tax bill by $27.70 a year. Brookhaven, Huntington, Smithtown, Islip and Babylon residents pay police district taxes.

The storm cleanup money will go for activities including debris cleanup and operation of emergency shelters, legislators said.

Lawmakers also restored $2.2 million in funding for county health clinics.

Overall, the lawmakers' budget includes no layoffs, and keeps the general fund tax rate flat at $89.22. It keeps Bellone's sale-lease back plan for the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, which would generate $70 million in one-time revenue. With state approval, the county's Judicial Facilities Agency would borrow to buy the building, then lease it to the county to cover the borrowing costs.

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Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), a member of the budget group, said lawmakers made few changes because they mostly agreed with Bellone's revenue and expense estimates.

"It was a reasonable budget. We haven't seen that in a long time," Schneiderman said.

Last year, the legislature made significant changes to former County Executive Steve Levy's budget, temporarily staving off hundreds of layoffs by tapping one-time revenue sources, and increasing police taxes. Bellone took office in January and said the county faced a 2011-2013 budget shortfall of as much as $530 million.

After layoffs, borrowing and new revenue plans, Bellone estimates the shortfall at $70 million next year, which the sale-leaseback plan aims to close.

Legislative Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) expressed concern about the police tax increase.

"Right now, my caucus is very concerned about any tax increase, in particular with all of the strife our citizens are experiencing due to the storm," said Kennedy, who is not a member of the working group.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the storm's aftermath has shown the need for the police tax hike, since it would fund officers who have helped by patrolling crowded gas stations and intersections without working traffic signals.

"I'd hope that there wouldn't be a lot of changes, because, frankly, this was a tight budget that already reflects a stark reality," Schneider said.

The legislature also left intact Bellone's plan to create a local traffic violations bureau, to borrow to pay for labor union arbitration awards and to consolidate some county departments.

But lawmakers said they will move to make several smaller budget adjustments, including:

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A $2.8 million increase in estimated revenue from administrative fees generated by red-light camera fines

Restoration of five public health nurse positions not funded by Bellone, and several other revenue-generating positions in the county clerk and real property tax services offices.

Restoration of about $625,000 in funding for high-risk youth and legal aid service programs.

"The changes are definitely less dramatic than we've seen in the past," said Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook).

The County Legislature is split 12-6 between Democrats and their minor party allies and Republicans.

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