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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Too early for control board in Suffolk

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone attends a news

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone attends a news conference in Greenport on May 5, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

Suffolk County, despite what a challenger to County Executive Steve Bellone believes, doesn't need a financial control board. For proof, look to Nassau, where, after 16 years of state oversight, the county still has fiscal challenges.

But James O'Connor, the Republican and Conservative Party candidate seeking Bellone's job, is on the mark in making county finances a campaign issue.

Wednesday, a report released by Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, showed that Suffolk, as of 2014, was in "moderate" fiscal stress. That's better than Nassau, which -- along with Amityville and Glen Cove -- were in "significant" stress, according to the comptroller's report.

Still, there's something Bellone can do right now to help the county: Accept DiNapoli's suggestion that municipalities develop multiyear financial plans that chart future increases in expenses -- such as contractual raises -- along with anticipated moves to keep future budgets balanced.

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state board overseeing Nassau's finances, early on required that the county each year craft a budget and a four-year financial plan.

As a result, County Executive Edward Mangano and lawmakers -- and by extension county residents -- have some idea of the financial challenges before them.

Not so in Suffolk.

Although early in Bellone's term Suffolk officials announced an anticipated cumulative multiyear deficit of more than $100 million, the county does not have to do multiyear financial planning.

Instead, the administration proposes the next year's budget, lawmakers consider and likely make changes, and the process pretty much ends until the next budgeting season.

That should not be happening in a county that -- like so many other municipalities in DiNapoli's report -- continues to have problems matching expenses with recurring revenue.

Bellone's proposed $2.9 billion budget for 2016 includes a nearly 3 percent police district property tax increase for residents in the county's five western towns. That's in addition to an increase in fees.

Which gives the county new revenue. That, along with borrowing and some one-time revenue, is projected to balance Bellone's budget plan.

O'Connor, in a news conference Tuesday, criticized the proposed borrowing and one-shot revenue, along with the rising costs of contracts with county law enforcement unions negotiated by Bellone.

He pointed out that a control board could have power to freeze salaries. Which NIFA did in Nassau -- although the board later approved contract agreements that reduce those savings.

O'Connor also noted that a state control board would have the power to oversee Suffolk's finances. NIFA has been doing that in Nassau since 2000, although the board never directly assumed elected officials' responsibility for deciding which services are to be funded and which are to be cut.

A spokesman for Bellone said Wednesday his proposal was balanced and it relied less on borrowing and one-shot revenue than in previous years. "We are not out of the woods yet on the deficit, but we have made tremendous progress," said Justin Meyers, Bellone's spokesman.

In 2011, he said, two-thirds of new proposed revenue in the budget were one-shots and one-third was the result of structural savings. For 2016, he said, "78 percent is structural and only 22 percent are one-shots," he said.

All of which likely will be subject to scrutiny by lawmakers in Hauppauge. And O'Connor, on the campaign trail.

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