Now that a credible, independent task force of financial experts has laid out a jaw-dropping, breathtaking estimate of Suffolk County's budgetary problems, County Executive Steve Bellone has only one real option: urgent, radical action. The county legislature has no choice but to work closely with him in that painful process.
There can be no misty-eyed hope of rescue by Albany or Washington. "The hard reality is that this problem has to be solved at this level," said Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip), after the task force briefed the Budget and Finance Committee yesterday, with most other members of the legislature present. "We do not have time to waste here. We have to act almost immediately." Barraga got it exactly right.
And we don't need a fight to recalculate the task force's findings. The only way to put the county's fiscal house in order is for Bellone and the legislature to be on the same page. Otherwise, the cash-flow problems -- it will borrow an estimated $655 million this year to pay for operations, compared to $280 million in 2007 -- could lead to the creation of a state control board to oversee its finances. Nobody wants that.
Once Bellone appointed the seven-member task force, its members consulted closely with his budget office and the legislature's budget review staff, who agreed on a total deficit of $400 million for fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013. The task force's initial projection was close to that: $406 million. But as members dug deeper, they found more reasons for pessimism, including slow-growing sales-tax revenue, plus fast-growing expenditures for salaries, benefits and pensions. So they revised their three-year deficit projection to $530 million, including $349 million in fiscal year 2013 alone. (By way of comparison, the 2012 budget is $2.7 billion.)
A $530-million hole demands immediate steps. First, Bellone and the legislature have to agree that these numbers are for real. Some legislators yesterday raised questions about aspects of the report. Fine. But that must not lead to an effort by lawmakers to avoid tough choices by tweaking the task force's projections to make them look more rosy. The findings are shocking, but they come from experts with strong municipal and private-sector finance backgrounds -- and no political axes to grind.
Second, Bellone has to be candid with the public about the size of the problem and propose bold action to solve it. He'll make those plans known in the next few weeks. The exact mix of steps he'll take remains to be seen, but he has an extremely limited menu of options.
The county's problem is big, but simply understood: Revenues are not going up as fast as costs are. There are two basic solutions: Raise revenues (tax increases) or cut spending (which could mean layoffs and sharp cuts in public services). Those are steps that every politician dreads. There are some one-shot revenue possibilities, as drastic as selling and leasing back the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. But the long-term fix requires tougher steps, like union concessions and job losses.
This is a herculean task. Bellone has made a good start by appointing the task force, committing to its findings, and reaching out to the legislature. He has to lead, and the legislature has to cooperate, forgetting past budget battles and working with the new executive to fix the county's future. It begins by agreeing how bad the future looks.