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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Suffolk eyes borrowing for projected budget deficit

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addresses legislators and

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone addresses legislators and constituents at the Suffolk County Legislative building in Hauppauge during the annual State of the County address. Credit: Johnny Milano / Johnny Milano

Suffolk County is looking at a projected budget deficit — again.

Yes, it’s smaller than the half-billion-dollar monster projected when County Executive Steve Bellone took office five years ago.

Still, the latest gap is troubling because the county, once again, is planning to borrow now to pay-back-more later to pull through.

Officials on Tuesday told a Suffolk legislative budget committee meeting that the county is facing a three-year, $186.3 million budget shortfall. It breaks down like this: $18.4 million in red ink from last year and projected gaps of $38.4 million in 2016 and as much as $129.4 million in 2017.

Bellone, upon taking office in 2012, put considerable attention on Suffolk’s budget gaps — which, back then, he projected to be $530 million by 2013. He declared a budget emergency and managed to quickly build support to attack the problem.

But a year into his second term, budget issues remain — although Connie Corso, Bellone’s budget director, said in an interview Wednesday that the administration is better positioned now than in 2012 to deal with it.

In February, Moody’s changed its outlook on the county to negative from stable, citing Suffolk’s nagging structural deficit. And last year, Standard & Poor’s lowered the county’s bond rating one notch, from A plus to A, citing the county’s failure to find more revenue or make cuts deep enough to close its structural gap — that is, the difference between expenses and revenues.

Part of the problem for Suffolk is lower-than-anticipated sales tax receipts, and a delay in the sale of the Foley nursing home. And then there also are some rising expenses, including police overtime, Robert Lipp, director of the county’s office of budget review, told lawmakers.

The county is expected to continue borrowing to patch over the gap. In fact, much of the gulf budget officials reported on Tuesday could be bridged by borrowing as much as $34.2 million from the state pension fund to ease pension payments; and another $38.2 million from the county’s sewer tax stabilization fund to cover other shortfalls.

Corso said Wednesday that the county is relying less on such one-shot measures, such as borrowing; and more on recurring revenues, such as red light cameras and other fees. Still, the breakdown is about 36 percent one-time-only revenues to 64 percent recurring revenues — which leaves the county burning through more than a third of its revenues in one-shots.

Which means the fight for a structurally deficit-free budget goes on. “We are better positioned to deal with this,” Corso said.

How much better? The county first declared a state of fiscal emergency in 2012. And it continues today — with deficits projected through 2017.

Even as Bellone begins preparation for next year’s operating budget.

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