Brown: Bellone races clock on Suffolk's finances

+ -
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks to Chamber

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks to Chamber of Commerce members. (Nov. 28, 2011) Photo Credit: John Dunn

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

How bad are Suffolk County's finances?

So bad that the county will issue revenue anticipation notes for the first time, officials said, in decades.

Money from the sale will go to fund the county payroll because Suffolk -- for decades, Long Island's strongest fiscal county -- is slated to run out of cash in April.

Shouldn't that be enough to trigger a state financial control board like the one already overseeing Nassau County?


Because Suffolk has a chance to accomplish what Nassau County hasn't: eliminate a built-in imbalance between how much the county spends and how much it brings in.

On Monday, an independent panel set Suffolk's three-year cumulative structural deficit at $530 million -- a number so astonishing that Bellone, in a pre-emptive move, briefed the Wall Street bond-rating agencies on the finding.

So now begins a race -- the first of many -- against the clock. Bellone will have to come up -- at minimum -- with the broad outline of a mitigation plan before those revenue anticipation notes go to market.

The last thing Suffolk needs because of the new deficit number is a significant downgrade, which could negatively impact the terms of April's or any future bond or note sales.

"You hit the nail on the head," Bellone said in an interview Wednesday. "That is a timetable we are looking at."

Bellone acknowledged that he'd been asked, repeatedly, since Monday's deficit announcement about the possibility of a fiscal control board.

It's not going to happen, he said. "In my view, it would be a terrible thing because it would mean that Suffolk's political leadership and others had failed to make difficult decisions," he said.

Nassau County has had fiscal oversight for more than a decade because political leaders could not effectively work with each other or the county's public employee unions.

"I look at Nassau and see that they had trouble in the late 1990s and they are still having trouble in 2012," Bellone said. "We don't want to get on that same kind of path."

So what's the solution?

Bellone said he met with the county's public employee union leaders Wednesday; and that he will meet with each union next week.

The county -- unlike Nassau -- does not have to ask most of its public employee unions to reopen existing contracts because both sides are at the negotiation table on expired agreements.

And the county is considering a host of other ways to raise revenue, including selling and leasing back county buildings -- including the Dennison Building in Hauppauge, which houses the county executive's office.

As he and legislative officials pointed out on Monday, no single item will bridge the deficit gap. There is little wiggle room in the budget and that includes Suffolk's lack of a significant reserve fund.

And New York State, which a decade ago gave Nassau more than $100 million to fix its budget -- ah, the waste! -- can't do the same for Suffolk.

"I wish," Bellone said, with a laugh. "We are asking the state for a few things like red light cameras, but we won't be getting anything like Nassau got."

All of which leaves Suffolk with little choice other than to devise a workable plan for saving itself. A control board? Not the best option -- as a look to the west, where the sides are still fighting, will confirm.

Promo text

Comments now uses Facebook for our comment boards. Please read our guidelines and connect your Facebook account to comment.

You also may be interested in: