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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Thomas DiNapoli report a call to action for LI

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. Credit: Newsday, 2012 / Audrey C. Tiernan

Suffolk's financial stresses are worse than Nassau's, according to a report issued recently by the state comptroller's office.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli listed Suffolk among a dozen municipalities statewide that are under "significant fiscal stress." Nassau was among nine municipalities with "moderate financial stress." The ratings are based on factors including deficits, spending, short-term debt and available cash.

Nassau over more than a decade has had the benefit of more than $100 million in state aid, a pay freeze for public workers and a state control board that's twice refinanced portions of the county's significant -- and still growing -- debt.

Suffolk County over the last two decades never had the fiscal or political need for such significant help.

Even if it did now -- 14 years after the founding of Nassau's financial control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority -- New York's finances are such that millions of dollars in state aid would be out of the question.

Suffolk appears unlikely to get a control board, which could impose a wage freeze or potentially refinance debt, as NIFA did. The last thing New York State wants is responsibility for overseeing budgets in multiple New York municipalities still reeling from the recession.

Still, the comptroller's report and its conclusion about Suffolk is valuable.

It reinforces the reality that Suffolk is in fiscal trouble -- and that County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk lawmakers have a big job in front of them.

Yes, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently signed off on a sale-lease deal for the Dennison Building that will net Suffolk $67 million in cash. But that's a one-shot revenue that Bellone can never use again.

Bellone also is backing a proposal to push off payment of more than $30 million in debt, a move that will save money in the short term.

Officials in both counties appear to be hoping that a recovering economy will lift their budgetary prospects -- and at some point it will.

But a report in Newsday on Sunday about an increase in foreclosures is one sign of the region's slow trudge toward recovery. The situation is compounded because many communities still are working to recover from superstorm Sandy. And many of the jobs that are coming back pay wages that are lower than the jobs Long Island lost during the recession.

Even at that, Suffolk has an advantage over Nassau, where the struggle to regain a strong fiscal footing is now into its second decade. For one thing, Suffolk's debt is $1.4 billion, while Nassau's is more than $3 billion.

Suffolk, which will spend about $100 million more than it collects in 2013, is near the beginning of its fiscal challenge. The decisions Bellone and other officials make now will help determine how long the crisis lasts.

There's nothing wrong with short-term efforts, such as pulling in significant one-shot revenue, so long as there are realistic policy efforts to find sustained revenue and make sustained cuts.

Bellone's proposal to push off debt does not meet that test. It's a way of pushing tough political decisions into the future.

Nassau's been there with such short-term thinking, and it's worked mostly to hollow out county services and push debt to future residents.

Last week, a spokeswoman for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, suggested that DiNapoli, a Democrat, had political motivations in highlighting Nassau's problems, while Bellone emphasized that the report dealt with the 2012 budget, which he inherited from GOP County Executive Steve Levy.

Nonetheless, it remains a call to action for both counties.


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