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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

For Steve Bellone, Suffolk's budget delayed for federal help that has yet to come

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Brentwood on

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Brentwood on Sept. 18. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Steve Bellone, Suffolk's county executive, on Friday did what he'd tried so mightily not to do: He submitted a budget containing cuts in services and jobs to the county legislature.

His hope had been that the United States government would come through — that is, that Washington would approve a measure to send millions of dollars to Suffolk and other municipalities now struggling with anemic revenues in the age of COVID-19.

While waiting, Bellone also did something neighboring Nassau did not do: Issue emergency orders to push back — once, twice, three times — the date when he would hand over his 2021 budget.

With the delay — the first in Suffolk's history — Bellone deviated from the usual budget timeline so clearly set out in the county charter.

In an interview last week, Bellone said an emergency declaration he made early on as the coronavirus pandemic spread though Suffolk freed him to submit two late fiscal plans — a proposed capital budget, and, on Friday, a proposed operating budget.

Meanwhile, in Nassau, where County Executive Laura Curran also declared an emergency, "we never considered delaying the budget," said Michael Fricchione, Curran's spokesman.

Over the past several weeks, in a series of news releases, Bellone foreshadowed some of the cuts his 2021 budget proposal now contains, including significant trims in spending on public safety, transportation and public health (during a pandemic).

Bellone also has proposed raising taxes in the police district portion of the budget by 1.9% — which would keep the increase under the state's mandated 2% cap.

"I think he was trying to wait on federal help," Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), the legislature's presiding officer, said Friday. "He didn't want to submit an Armageddon budget."

Even so, Bellone's proposal still keeps hope of federal aid alive.

The most onerous of Bellone's proposed cuts would not go into effect until July 1, 2021. If a cavalry of aid should arrive, Bellone and county lawmakers could take the added revenue into consideration and potentially forestall layoffs and cuts.

A report issued last week by Fitch Ratings provided a window into just how dire Suffolk's finances have become.

According to the report, the county was considering eliminating new police officer classes in 2021 and 2022, and reassigning staff from "non-essential functions to more essential duties."

To further trim costs, the report said, Suffolk also was considering measures to streamline operations, including going to a new automated human resources system, to get $40 million in savings.

The report also delved into Suffolk's increasingly turning to borrowing to make ends meet, just as Nassau is.

Suffolk, for example, has increased its short-term borrowing by $60 million over last year.

Bellone acknowledged that the increase was needed to meet Suffolk's cash-flow needs, including pay for county employees.

"We were in the middle of the economy being shut down and it became a question of whether we could make payroll," Bellone said.

Suffolk also plans to borrow another $100 million through the Federal Reserve Municipal Liquidity Facility this month, an avenue Bellone needed to avoid higher interest rates on Wall Street.

In total, the county's cash flow borrowing is anticipated to total $615 million — which translates into about 20% of Suffolk's budgeted government expenses for fiscal 2020.

"Fitch believes that the county will remain stressed in the next several years given its lack of reserves, which will likely result in significant budget reductions and potential tax increases," according to Fitch.

To be fair, Suffolk is hardly the only municipality in the hole because of the pandemic.

A report issued last week by SUNY's Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public policy think tank, suggested that, among other measures, local governments could end up cutting services, drawing down rainy day funds, increasing borrowing, delaying payments and other expenditures and furloughing or laying off workers to make ends meet.

Bellone's decision to delay the budget, meanwhile, drew some scrutiny.

"It's another end-run around the county charter," said Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy Suffolk County executive and counsel to the county legislature who represented plaintiffs in a successful court challenge to Suffolk's taking of $29.4 million from a voter-referendum-approved sewer fund in 2011 to balance its budget.

Officials later decided to add a referendum on the issue to the 2020 ballot.

Calarco said lawmakers initially had questions about Bellone's delays in releasing his budget.

"We cleared it through our general counsel," Calarco said.

Lawmakers and their nonpartisan office of budget review, nonetheless, will have ample opportunity to scrutinize Bellone's proposal. And Calarco already has slated hearings on both the capital and operating budgets.

In his final order delaying the budget, Bellone agreed to give lawmakers more time — by ceding time he would have had to issue vetoes.

Instead of the usual week or two, Calarco said, Bellone will have 36 hours.

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