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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

On the road to budget Armageddon in Suffolk and Nassau, or maybe not

Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy speaks at the

Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy speaks at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library on Sept. 21, 2019. Credit: Danielle Silverman

John Kennedy, Suffolk's comptroller, made a pitch during a county legislative meeting last week to keep his office's funding — and thus, its staff — intact.

He pointed out that the office, which is responsible for auditing departments and contract agencies, among other duties, helps save Suffolk money — no small thing for a county that was barely covering its expenses, even before a pandemic dried up sales tax and other revenues.

For a minute or two, Kennedy, a Republican, seemed to be getting somewhere, after one lawmaker offered up the idea of allowing the office to hang on to a portion of funding slated to be cut under County Executive Steve Bellone's lean and mean 2021 budget.

But the idea ended up going nowhere, and, after a half-hour or so more, funding for Kennedy's office — like that for other county departments and contract agencies — ended up cut, as planned.

Even before the meeting, Suffolk's lawmakers caught shade for opting, early on, to leave Bellone's slash-and-burn budget untouched.

And while Kennedy did his best, lawmakers ultimately decided to offer no amendments to temper the potential impact of what Bellone and others have called an Armageddon budget.

Armageddon, defined, is a final destructive battle or conflict, according to the dictionary.

In Suffolk, the meaning could be stretched to, well, hoping to avoid all hell breaking loose.

Bellone, a Democrat, tried so hard to stall the county budget that, for the first time in Suffolk's history, he turned his proposal in late.

Even so, Bellone and lawmakers in Suffolk — as in New York State, in Nassau County and towns and villages across Long Island — still are hoping to avoid having to put unprecedented cuts into place.

The Town of Hempstead, the nation's largest by population, for example, took $20 million from reserves to balance its 2021 budget. And just last week, Brookhaven officials said the town would lay off 14 employees. Like Huntington, Babylon, Islip and a few other towns, Brookhaven also would boost taxes.

Although the Suffolk budget takes effect in January, the cuts wouldn't begin to kick in until April. Bellone and lawmakers are hoping by that time that additional aid from Washington will make the cuts unnecessary.

Still, there is value in looking at what Suffolk, absent a financial lifeline from Washington, says it no longer would be able afford:

  • Salaries and benefits for some 500 county workers.
  • About half the public bus routes, including some services for the disabled.
  • A new academy class of police officers.
  • Significant funding for public health agencies, community clinics and contract agencies that provide social services.

Nassau is facing significant revenue issues, too.

But there, the approach has been different. County Executive Laura Curran is seeking a "declaration of need" that would allow the county to save money by having a state control board refinance hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

Such a move would help the county today, absent D.C. funding, but masks the difficult choices Curran might have to make to trim expenses.

Republican lawmakers in Nassau did amend Curran's budget to, among other things, increase funding for bus service. Curran vetoed the changes, and lawmakers did not override her action.

Then there's the politics of it all.

The county legislatures in Nassau and Suffolk are up for reelection in 2021.

The decision by Suffolk lawmakers to leave Bellone's budget unchanged, makes the cuts more his than theirs. Bellone is term-limited.

In Nassau, GOP lawmakers' attempt to amend Curran's budget puts any move to borrow on Curran, who runs for reelection to a second term next year.

On the face of it, Nassau could end up avoiding Armageddon in 2021. But the county's financial control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, last week noted that the county still has structural budget problems.

So, too, does Suffolk.

All of which could make the benefits of a potential move by the federal government to bulk up county revenues short-lived.

As Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) put it during last week's meeting: "This isn't all the pandemic's fault … we've had problems that weren't addressed long before then."

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