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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

When priorities collide: Could a bid to help town residents could end up hurting counties? 

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

Are Suffolk towns, in attempting to blunt the economic impact of coronavirus on residents, on a collision course with the county?

Supervisors joined together, weeks ago, in requesting an extension on property tax payments.

But a freeze in payments would cripple county budgets, Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy and other officials said.

Suffolk is particularly vulnerable.

Last month, its bond rating dropped.

And, Kennedy said, the deadline for a debt payment is fast approaching.

The county needs those taxes, he said, to help pay that bill.

"I don't make policy decisions," Kennedy said Friday. "I'm just the guy that's charged with picking up the pen, and I can tell you, we are struggling to pay our bills."

In Nassau, where town supervisors also are seeking to push back the property tax payment deadline, the borrowing situation is not as dire.

But only — ironically — because of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state control board overseeing county finances.

As it did recently, NIFA can borrow money for Nassau — and at rates significantly more favorable to taxpayers than the county, which for decades has been vexed with financial issues, could get on its own.

"Wall Street sees NIFA as a positive factor," said Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman, who recently completed a preliminary assessment of the potential economic impact of COVID-19.

Richard Schaffer, the Babylon Town supervisor and head of the Suffolk supervisors' association, said supervisors recently had tweaked their property tax extension request.

Instead of a blanket extension for residents and businesses who pay their property taxes at town hall, the supervisors are proposing some needs-based assessment.

"We're the ones getting the telephone calls," said Schaffer, noting that Suffolk's 10 town supervisors are comparing notes during frequent conference calls. "We're hearing from small businesses who own their buildings, from residents who lost someone to the virus, or who have lost their jobs."

Schaffer, a Democrat, continued, "They're saying, 'We can't afford to pay this.'"

The lion's share of property tax payments come from mortgage companies that hold property owners' tax payments in escrow until they are due.

But there are residents who own their properties mortgage-free who begin dropping off their property tax payments in town halls in Suffolk and Nassau in January.

The deadline is the end of May. But Suffolk town supervisors want to push that date to summer, and make late payments penalty and interest free.

Is that enough time to build an infrastructure that would determine need?

"We're already working on it," Schaffer said. "The goal is to help residents, but not hurt the county."

Following in the footsteps of Hempstead Town, which, until early April, had a drive-through window tax payments, the supes also are working on a way to provide for curbside payment to allow residents to stay in their vehicles, Schaffer said.

Even as supervisors advocate for residents, they, along with cities and villages, are having to juggle the impact of COVID-19 on budgets of their own.

Patchogue Village approved a tight plan that put off planned village improvements because of drops in revenue from traffic tickets, fees and other sources.

The City of Long Beach, which was in deep fiscal trouble before the pandemic, has frozen hiring and is laying off more than 100 part-time staff.

Hempstead Town, however, bucked the trend — by hiring, and handing out raises.  A spokesman said Saturday that only one of those new hires has been put on the payroll. "A decision on when to activate employment for new personnel will be determined as our government, just like the private sector, confronts the evolving circumstances surrounding the coronavirus," said town spokesman Greg Blower. 

In Islip, as in Babylon — both of which have Triple-A Wall Street bond ratings — supervisors are hunkering down.

And like the counties, they're keeping records in anticipation of filing for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We are on it like white on rice," said Angie Carpenter, Islip's Republican supervisor, who served as Suffolk's last elected treasurer.

"But that money, you know, is probably not going to come in to us for two years, so we're going to have to get through this year and probably next year's budget," Carpenter said.

Increasing property taxes on Long Island is politically toxic.

Which is why a significant portion of revenue for both county budgets comes from sales taxes. It's also why both counties, in recent years, have turned to fee increases — and, critics say, to red-light camera programs which help safety while significantly boosting revenues.

With coronavirus, less spending by consumers means less sales tax revenue, while canceled programs mean the same.

"From a financial perspective, this is about revenue," said Schnirman, a Democrat.

He noted that with superstorm Sandy, "there was the immediate expense of cleanup. With this, for the county, it's going to be the decline in revenue."

And that's what worries Kennedy. And he's not just concerned the supervisors' appeal to delay property tax payments. The proposed delay would impact the county since towns receive their portion of property tax revenue earlier in the year.

Also, the economic fallout from COVID-19, "is attacking municipalities that are weakest at their structural level," said Kennedy, a Republican who last year ran unsuccessfully against Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone.

"There is no amount of activity that is going to go ahead and catch up and replace that revenue," he said. "People are going to go out, eventually, and they are going to buy — but it will be adding revenue to the future, and we will have lost [revenue from] this block of time in perpetuity."

"Everything — everything is going to have to change," Kennedy said.

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