Unlike Nassau County, Suffolk doesn't have a state control board that can freeze its employees' wages if revenues fall too far behind expenses. Both counties have seen the gap between their planned expenses and projected revenues increase in recent years. Both counties' short-term borrowing has climbed dramatically since 2007. But Nassau's short-term borrowing is stabilizing while Suffolk's climbs.
If Suffolk did have an oversight board that followed the same guidelines as the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, such a panel almost certainly already would have declared a control period, and perhaps even frozen wages. That's just what NIFA did because Nassau's deficits went beyond 1 percent of budgeted revenue. Suffolk's $154-million deficit in 2012 was about 6 percent of its budget.
Suffolk uses short-term borrowing to pay operating expenses, then repays the money when property tax revenue comes in. That's not abnormal. But it's alarming that Suffolk borrowed $280 million to get through 2007, and needed $625 million in 2013.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has cut spending. He's dealt with costs exceeding revenues via one-shot deals like selling the county's H. Lee Dennison Building and amortizing pension costs. As Nassau has learned all too well with its total debt of more than $3 billion, balancing the books that way comes at a high price. Suffolk's long-term debt is only about $1.4 billion, and its one-shot revenue sources are drying up.
Bellone has approved very long and lucrative police contracts, arguing that the price would be even higher if settled through arbitration. He faced hefty increases in pension and health care costs. The county has a structural deficit of around $100 million per year.
With no easy answers, Suffolk County is going to have to keep making very difficult changes, spending less money and bringing in more, to avoid the permanent debt load that has become Nassau's sad story.