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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

You're Suffolk County, and you're in a jam. Who you gonna call? Rep. Lee Zeldin.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) Zeldin, is seeking a

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) Zeldin, is seeking a fourth term representing the 1st District, which covers the East End in Suffolk County. Credit: Morgan Campbell

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, after voting for the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act last Thursday, found time to talk as he made his way north, from Washington back to Long Island.

Zeldin, a Republican representing the 1st Congressional District in Suffolk County, was nearing Baltimore when conversation turned to County Executive Steve Bellone's quest to bend U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's ear for changes to a new federal program.

The changes would allow Suffolk to borrow more easily, and without overly high interest.

Zeldin said he was confident that he would hear from the secretary, a Republican who has a home in Suffolk.

"And I want to be ready," Zeldin said as he drove, "so that Steve can be part of the call, that he can make his case as well."

That was at 7:30 p.m. or so.

At 9:05 p.m., the call Bellone was waiting and hoping for came through.

"I want to thank Congressman Zeldin," Bellone would say Friday, early on in his COVID-19 daily update, "because he was able to arrange a phone call … which we were able to have last night."

Bellone described the exchange with Mnuchin and Zeldin as "a very positive phone call … a very positive conversation."

Bellone said he was hopeful "that coming out of that will be something positive."

But let's go back a couple of weeks.

Suffolk, like other municipalities, wants to borrow, even as the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening. 

But because of a recent drop in its bond rating, Suffolk County ends up offering more notes for sale than investors are willing to buy.

That borrowing also came at a price — 4% interest, which is astronomical for a municipal offering.

That's when the letter writing and lobbying accelerated.

Bellone wrote a letter to Mnuchin; and he reached out to Zeldin, who wrote a letter, too.

Suffolk also sought assistance from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bellone said.

The quest, simplified, is to get the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to allow Suffolk to qualify for financing assistance through the Municipal Liquidity Facility.

Such assistance would allow Suffolk to borrow what it needs — and at significantly lower interest rates, which would save money for county taxpayers down the line.

But, for now, there's a problem.

Cities with a million or more residents qualify for the federal program, and so do counties with two million or more residents.

And while Suffolk, with a population of about 1.5 million, would meet the mark if it were a city, it doesn't qualify as a county.

Zeldin said he thinks the issue can be resolved.

"Lowering the … [threshold] to one million would include Suffolk," he said. "That would provide an opportunity for Suffolk to make some decisions to help finances, and most importantly to help Suffolk County residents."

Last week, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran sought, and received, an order from fellow Democrat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that exended the deadline for paying school taxes without incurring penalties and fines.

Bellone would like to do the same for Suffolk County taxpayers. But to do so would weaken the county's already shaky finances by delaying needed revenue.

Hence, the pitch, from Bellone — through Zeldin — to Mnuchin, for the ability to do short-term borrowing to give both Suffolk, and taxpayers who cannot meet their obligations right now, some breathing room.

As the county waits for Mnuchin's response, Zeldin and the Long Island congressional delegation to Washington have been working to seek other relief.

In addition to the COVID-19 relief-related measures signed into law recently, for example, the delegation is pushing to waive the usual 25% contribution to Federal Emergency Management Agency funds — so states could receive 100% of FEMA aid.

Zeldin said he's also pushing for changes to some existing programs that would allow Suffolk and other municipalities to use COVID-19 funds to cover services that could be threatened because of lost revenue.

During his remarks Friday, Bellone mentioned Zeldin by name multiple times — as have he and multiple Suffolk officials, Republican and Democrat, in interviews over the past several weeks.

"We're navigating this situation where everyone's on the same page, as Long Islanders, as New Yorkers," said Zeldin, who is seeking reelection in November.

"I might have had political disagreements, for example, with the governor in the past and I might have them in the future," Zeldin said. "But … we're in the same foxhole, with rifles pointing in the same direction, during this pandemic."

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