It may have been the last thing Suffolk legislators wanted to see before leaving their offices for the weekend.
But their office of budget review — the county’s canary in the coal mine — late Friday afternoon emailed legislators its initial review of County Executive Steve Bellone’s $2.97 billion budget proposal for 2017.
And it’s not pretty.
The report, which is posted on the county’s website at legis.suffolkcountyny.gov/bro/Reports/2016/Review_2017_Recommended_OB.pdf, says the county has remained afloat only by deferring expenses and borrowing from the state retirement system and the county sewer fund to pay for operating expenses while also relying on continued one-time deals, such as the sale of the former Foley Nursing Home.
In an understated, but dire warning, Robert Lipp, budget review director, said, “Our concern . . . is that we may be reaching a point where these types of funding measures may no longer be available at needed levels.”
The report says the county’s structural deficit — in which recurring expenses outstrip recurring revenue — remains between $135.3 million and $179.7 million, even though Bellone’s budget includes a $20.3 million increase in property taxes next year and $50 million in new fees, after already imposing $42.2 million in new fees this year.
“In spite of the large sums in recurring revenues that some of these fees bring in we are still unable to make a dent in our structural deficit,” the report states.
Tying legislators’ hands even further, legislative budget analysts also said Bellone’s proposed budget leaves nearly $34 million in budget potholes like underfunding overtimes costs by $14.4 million and $11.9 million in overestimates of what fees will bring in.
Such problems, the report states, will leave lawmakers with little flexibility in even considering meeting what some may see as crucial needs like restoring lost bus routes, undoing new income restrictions to day-care eligibility and hitting nonprofit groups with a new fee that requires them to pay the county back 1 percent of what they get to deliver services that the county itself cannot afford to staff.
Legislative budget analysts also warned that Bellone’s single largest budget initiative — borrowing $60 million in 2016 and 2017 to pay retiring police for unused sick and vacation time — requires state legislation. “It is unclear if the state will grant the county the authority,” analysts said.
Up to now, Bellone aides concede, there have been only passing discussions of the idea with Albany officials, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) has not responded to Newsday’s request for comment on the county executive’s proposal.
Once the budget is finished, legislative budget analysts urged officials to concentrate on the structural deficit that has “increasingly been driving our decisions” in all budget matters. “Since it has taken years to reach this point,” the report concluded, “it will take a long-term plan to straighten out our finances.”