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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Budget magic, election-year style

The Suffolk County Legislature seal in the lobby

The Suffolk County Legislature seal in the lobby of the legislature building in Hauppauge is seen on Aug. 14, 2012. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Election year budgets are fun.

That’s because elected officials hoping to keep their jobs always seem to find ways to make themselves budgetary heroes.

Take Suffolk County, where last month lawmakers voted to suspend the county legislature’s annual cost-of-living increases for the next five years.

The savings for Suffolk taxpayers?

Less than $26,000 for 18 legislators, and also the county executive, clerk, comptroller and sheriff’s offices — which is something, although not much when it comes to plugging Suffolk’s $130-million structural deficit.

But here’s where things get odd.

Until recently, elected officials voted raises for themselves mostly in “safe” — read, nobody’s up for re-election — years. But since pay hikes generated public firestorms, Suffolk and Nassau — along with a lot of other municipalties across the nation — opted for the less onerous path of automatically boosting salaries with annual cost-of-living increases.

That way, pay increases were built into the budget — no muss, no fuss and no feisty public hearings.

Suffolk’s decision, as some lawmakers pointed out, sets up the potential for old-time fireworks five years down the line when officials have to decide whether to renew the suspension, or let it expire.

Meanwhile, even with the cost-of-living increases in effect several Suffolk elected officials including some lawmakers and County Executive Steve Bellone received reduced salaries — at their own request.

Cost-of-living increases aside, Suffolk lawmakers have yet to decide whether to adopt or alter Bellone’s proposed 2018 budget — which includes speculative items such as multi-millions of dollars in savings from union contracts yet to be negotiated.

But lawmakers get lucky there — the budget doesn’t have to be approved until after November’s elections.

Not so in Nassau.

Under a charter reform adopted more than a decade ago, Nassau lawmakers have to approve a budget by the end of October. The timing is deliberate, because the charter revision committee listened to irate Nassau residents weary of learning that taxes were going up after elections.

Last year, Nassau lawmakers, going against the spirit of that reform, passed the budget on time but didn’t fund it until months later. This year, lawmakers are balking at outgoing County Executive Edward Mangano’s proposal to balance the 2018 budget through $59 million in unspecified fee increases.

Democrats oppose the increases. And the Republican-majority indicated last week that the proposed increases — Mangano left it up to lawmakers to decide which fees would go up, and by how much — could be stripped from the budget.

All of which potentially sets the stage for a second year of passing the budget on time, and funding it later.

And by later — naturally — it means, after elections are over.

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