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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Suffolk finances follow Nassau’s poor example

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone appears in Greenport

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone appears in Greenport on May 5, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

When it comes to handling finances, Suffolk seems to be tracking the footsteps of its neighbor to the west, Nassau County.

And that’s probably not a good thing.

Last week, the administration of County Executive Steve Bellone said it would begin a $12 million lag payroll, beginning with paychecks county workers will receive on April 14.

The lag would eliminate one day’s pay, from each two-week paycheck, for 20 weeks for 4,800 members of the county’s Association of Municipal Employees union, which agreed to the lag in the union’s latest contract.

Bellone had suggested dropping the lag and going instead with having the county suspend $12 million in payments to the union fund that pays for members’ dental, vision and legal services. He decided to implement the lag, however, after union leadership balked at that plan, although the union says it is willing to keep negotiating.

But wait, haven’t we seen something like this before?

In 2000, in Nassau, then-County Executive Thomas Gulotta, who, like Bellone, was attempting to stem a tide of red ink, pushed a lag payroll, too. Union leadership at the time wasn’t happy, but ended up agreeing, oh so reluctantly, after Gulotta threatened to lay off 500 employees instead.

In Suffolk, the administration’s move on the lag payroll came a week after Moody’s Investors Service revised its outlook on Suffolk’s finances from stable to negative because the county continues to rely on short-term borrowing and one-shot revenue.

Another bond-rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, has warned that, absent significant action to narrow its deficit, Suffolk could face three more downgrades over the next two years — an eerie echo of what happened in Nassau, which fell to just-above-junk-bond status before then-Gov. George Pataki offered the county millions of dollars in state aid, along with a financial control board in 2000.

Suffolk officials say they have little choice other than to go with the lag because the county’s already taken several other measures to steady its finances.

Among them:

  • Handing the county’s health care clinics over to the private sector, along with putting the county nursing home up for sale — variations of what Nassau did in 1999, when it agreed to sell the county’s hospital and health care clinics to a state-chartered corporation for $70 million to close a budget gap.
  • Reducing the county’s payroll, which Nassau has done, mostly via retirement incentives, over the past decade.
  • And, in an unusual move once opposed by Bellone, selling off and leasing back the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, which houses the county executive’s offices. That idea appears to have surfaced as far back as 1992, when then-County Executive Robert Gaffney was seeking quick cash now — at a higher cost to taxpayers later — to fill a budget hole.

But Nassau’s no stranger to unusual moves, either.

In April 1999, for example, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority gave Nassau $70 million in upfront cash, while Nassau issued $141 million in bonds that the MTA intended to use for new cars. Critics considered it deficit financing; Nassau considered it a godsend, which it used to fill a budget hole.

Last week, Bellone declared Suffolk to be in a state of fiscal emergency. For a fifth year.

In Nassau, which has a control board, it’s been a decade.

And a half.

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