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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Suffolk budget needs long-term deficit solution

Steve Bellone addresses residents of Huntington Station as

Steve Bellone addresses residents of Huntington Station as part of a listening tour. (April 22, 2013) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Suffolk's back-to-back budget deficits -- the first in two decades -- ought to be a clarion call for getting county finances back on track.

A report released last week showed Suffolk ending 2012 in the red by $155.5 million.

County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki noted in his report, however, that because of items such as a parcel of land yet to be sold in Yaphank, there's actually an adjusted deficit of $99.2 million.

That's still a big number.

County Executive Steve Bellone and lawmakers are hoping to fill the gap with a series of actions -- such as a sale and lease back of the county building in Hauppauge -- that have yet to occur.

But even if every initiative fell into place, Suffolk probably would continue to face shortfalls unless there's a more aggressive plan to bridge the structural gap between what the county spends and what it takes in.

One looming issue is the settlement with the county's police unions, which, down the line and for a time, significantly increases expenses.

Another complicating factor is that Suffolk has yet to reach agreements with other county employee unions. Usually, municipalities squirrel monies away in anticipation of some settlement costs.

But Suffolk's running so thin that doing so has been all but impossible.

Increasing costs, plus consecutive years of deficits, plus Suffolk's growing use of short-term, cash-flow borrowing, plus a lower-than-anticipated sales tax revenue report, equal the need for a stronger action plan.

Last week, a spokesman for Bellone, a Democrat, pointed out that the county executive had inherited a deficit and a budget that already was out of balance.

That's true.

So is the fact that Bellone and lawmakers have cut costs by, among other things, eliminating 700 jobs.

The administration also has worked to increase revenue by, among other things, establishing a new traffic bureau and gaining authority to put in even more of those hated red-light cameras.

But, as William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), the legislature's presiding officer, pointed out last week, it hasn't been enough.

What now?

Bellone is looking to cut costs even more by moving toward closure of the county's assisted nursing care facility; he's also combining community health care centers.

It's unlikely, however, that such moves -- even with the one-shot revenue initiatives -- will be enough to bridge what appears to be a growing structural gap.

What Suffolk needs to do is either make more cuts, or find more sources of significant, sustained revenue in a county that increasingly relies on sales tax proceeds as a primary source of funding.

Suffolk's general fund tax, which makes up a small portion of residential property tax bills, hasn't been increased in about a decade.

That's because elected officials in Suffolk, like those in Nassau, consider increasing the levy tantamount to political suicide -- especially now, when so many residents are recovering from the recession and superstorm Sandy.

Bellone and legislators are unlikely to go there. And they're also unlikely -- for the same recovery-related reasons -- to go for an increase in the sales tax.

That could change since so many counties in New York State are facing budget problems; a blanket approval from Albany to allow municipalities to increase their sales taxes likely would offer political cover.

But there's never any guarantee of how Albany will act.

Which leaves Bellone and lawmakers -- post-back-to-back deficits -- with a lot more work to do.

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