Suffolk exec contenders mum on fiscal mess

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Suffolk County Executive candidates Angie Carpenter, left, and

Suffolk County Executive candidates Angie Carpenter, left, and Steve Bellone. Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Rick Brand Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on

Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

Suffolk Treasurer Angie Carpenter last week showed up at the county legislature's budget committee to testify about County Executive Steve Levy's $2.7 billion budget.

While Republican Carpenter is looking to replace the lame-duck Levy, her testimony had little to do with the county's fiscal crisis. Instead, she merely asked the committee to restore layoffs in the treasurer's office.

Her Democratic opponent, Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone, did not appear, although his aide Ben Zwirn was there to buttonhole lawmakers. But Zwirn's interest was in a measure that would create a separate line on the property tax bill for the $11 million cost that Levy wants to pass to Suffolk's 10 towns for out-of-county community college tuition.

With little more than two weeks before Election Day, neither Carpenter nor Bellone have made an issue of Suffolk's massive budget hole, which lawmakers in both parties estimate at $135 million. Levy has proposed layoffs of 710 workers, while legislative budget analysts are warning that Suffolk could run out of operating funds by spring.

Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) echoed others who say the contenders for Suffolk's top office should let voters know how they plan to deal with the mess. "Both of them are missing a golden opportunity. People want specifics. They should jump into the fray," said Barraga.

Both Bellone and Carpenter oppose Levy's proposed layoffs, but neither has laid out how they would replace the $30 million those cuts would generate. Beyond that, neither has detailed a plan to deal with Suffolk's budget problems come January. "My position is that to get out of this fiscal mess we have to streamline the government and grow the economy and put the economy on steroids," said Bellone. However, he said "it is very difficult to tell the legislature specifically what it should do when you're not in charge of the government."

Carpenter said that as a former county lawmaker she understands the complicated budget process, in which the executive proposes the budget, legislators amend it and she and others advocate for their departments. "The last thing I'd want to do is politicize the budget process, knowing how hard it is," she said.

Some note the high poll ratings of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who have detailed their fiscal strategies, and contrast them with the Suffolk candidates' stances. "It's like they are the captain of the Titanic and saying, 'No problem, we're just stopping for some ice,' " said Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island.

However, Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), said, "The fiscal condition of the county is so dismal that unless you're directly involved in talks, I don't think you can grasp the reality when the choices are between bad or worse."

Others say the candidates are steering away from budget issues because none of the options -- layoffs, cuts in services or raising taxes -- are likely to attract supporters. "There is no silver bullet at the local level to fix the problem and make everyone happy," said Paul Sabatino, a Republican who once served as Levy's top deputy.

Levy said both Bellone and Carpenter are "playing it safe so they have the leeway to raise taxes and not alienate any of the special interests." He said his 2012 budget is balanced, and that the spending plan, with its proposed layoffs and shutdown of the county nursing home, will provide the next county executive with recurring savings. "I'm doing my successor a favor," he said.

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