Suffolk Legislature makes final tweaks to budget

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone releases and talks Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone releases and talks about the county's budget at his office in the Dennision Buiding in Hauppauge. (Sept. 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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For the second consecutive year, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone will not issue any significant vetoes to the legislative amendments of his budget.

The administration said yesterday it will accept lawmaker changes to the $2.76 billion spending plan for 2014, including a controversial tapping of sales-tax funded environmental reserves to pay for a $32.8 million spike in debt payments. Technically, Bellone will issue one veto -- correcting an assessment figure -- but that's at the legislature's request.

"When you're issuing a veto, you're saying, 'We can't work together,' " Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said. "Everything in this budget gives us the tools to continue to work together with the legislature."

Lawmakers are expected to set next year's tax levy and complete the budget at today's meeting. General fund taxes remain frozen, but properties in the police district serving Suffolk's five western towns will see a 2.34 percent tax increase.

Other budget amendments boost projected traffic fine revenue, fund mechanics to address a police car repair backlog, and restore $1.6 million in contract agency aid.

But the most discussed change involved plugging the new hole from the debt service spike. Bellone initially planned to seek special legislation to allow the state's Dormitory Authority to restructure county debt, pushing off the $32.8 million increase at an added, future cost of about $46 million.

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Instead, the legislature voted to take the money from Suffolk's assessment stabilization reserves, which protects sewer district tax rates. The fund receives its revenue from a quarter-cent sales tax for drinking water protection, authorized by referendum -- and environmentalists argue it's illegal for officials to use it for anything but that approved purpose.

"This isn't only irresponsible, we think it's against the law," said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

After the budget is completed, the assessment stabilization reserves will be left with $102 million. County officials have committed to replenishing the lost $32.8 million beginning in 2017.

Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) acknowledged concern that the amendment language doesn't mandate the fund's repayment, but he said no one will allow its depletion.

"There is certainly -- without a doubt -- every intention to replenish it," Gregory said.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), opposed Bellone's debt restructuring, but disliked the alternative option just as much. "I don't think that using a fund that was set up by the voters with specific purposes to hide the real fiscal challenges we face is a good idea," he said.

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