A mountainous budget deficit has been eating up vast amounts of his staff's time, but Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is not letting short-term budget woes keep him from thinking big and long-term. He needs to do both. His Connect Long Island outline of the way the county will go about economic development has a good core approach and a couple of innovative ideas. But the budget reality won't go away, and Bellone will have to make even tougher choices very soon -- and lean a little harder on legislators.
The keystone of Bellone's economic development strategy is to use the county's resources as a collaborator and a coordinator. That means the county won't be looking to impose ideas from above, but to keep a close eye on projects that are already bubbling up from the towns and the research institutions, and to find ways to tie them together.
Though his plan does not have a lot of new ideas, two are worth studying. One is a proposal to work toward bus rapid transit on the Sagtikos Parkway and Nicolls Road (County Road 97). The county desperately needs more north-south transit, and this is worth pursuing, for the links it would make. The Nicolls Road route, for example, could link Stony Brook University, a major employer and vital research facility, with the Ronkonkoma Hub and the emerging downtown of Patchogue Village.
But it won't be easy to make the argument to the Federal Transit Administration, the gatekeeper of federal transit funds, that there are enough jobs and potential riders on those routes. In contrast, there's hope at the end of a long slog toward putting bus rapid transit on the busy Route 110 corridor. The next step is a request for proposals this summer for the best way to do it. Also, a jolt of state funding is accelerating the second track on the Long Island Rail Road from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma. That has brought new buzz to an idea Bellone has been pushing: reopening the old Republic LIRR station on Route 110. That would link with the north-south bus rapid transit.
Another idea he offered was "innovation zones," the use of public lands for high-tech companies to locate as they grow. He mentioned, for example, the campuses of Suffolk County Community College and Brookhaven National Laboratory as possible sites. Retaining Island-spawned businesses is a top regional goal, and this might help.
But looming over all this is the budget. Bellone would argue that his collaborative style, which has also worked well in Albany, has gotten the legislature to go along with almost all of the $162-million first phase of his plan to deal with a deficit pegged at $530 million through 2013. But in a few areas, such as tobacco education, ferry fares and handicapped transportation, the legislature has rejected his cuts.
So Bellone has a difficult balancing act: He has to remain collegial with the legislators and win their buy-in. But if he seems too willing to back down from tough cuts, that will weaken his stance for the far deeper, more painful spending reductions that lie ahead in the next phase of deficit reduction and the 2013 budget.
In other words, he has to be visionary about the future, while showing just the right amount of toughness in the present to fix the budget mess. It won't be easy, but it's what the moment demands.