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Deficit-cutting measures trumping politics

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge. (July

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge. (July 31, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Steve Bellone's Democratic principles were on full display the day he was inaugurated as Suffolk County executive.

"Think for a moment what it is that we do in county government," he said last winter. "We ensure public safety, we maintain public health, we provide a safety net for the most vulnerable members of our society."

Eight months later, Bellone has embraced a practice that shrinks the municipal role in those missions, a practice often jeered by national Democrats: privatization.

The administration's controversial plan to sell the John J. Foley nursing home in Yaphank to for-profit operators is the latest example. Earlier this summer, Bellone announced intentions to cede management of more county public health centers to a contractor, while pushing to lay off union security guards for a private firm.

All of it comes down to one thing, say Bellone aides: When facing a massive inherited budget deficit, protecting taxpayers matters more than politics.

"County Executive Bellone does not believe there is a Democrat or Republican way to deliver services. What drives him is delivering services most efficiently," said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider.

Local government experts generally agree that it makes sense to examine, regardless of party affiliation, whether the private sector can perform municipal functions at a lower cost. While the Republican county executive of Nassau, Edward Mangano, has been a leading privatization advocate -- most recently with a nearly $1 billion plan to pass operation of county sewer systems -- Democratic leaders nationwide are mulling similar efforts.

In Los Angeles, a top budget official has pitched a private firm to manage the city convention center. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly chief of staff for President Barack Obama, has privatized city custodial and sanitation functions.

Former New York Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, a Democrat who co-founded the State Budget Crisis Task Force to study the recession's impact on local government, said Bellone is being flexible in light of a projected $300 million shortfall.

"When you have a deficit the size of the one Mr. Bellone is facing, party labels don't mean a damn thing," Ravitch said. "You do what you must to maintain essential services for the people you serve, while still balancing the budget."

That doesn't mean Bellone's privatization pushes are universally popular. The union for the county's security guards took him to court to block the guards' replacement with a private firm (the grievance is now in arbitration). Many of the guards work out of sometimes volatile social services centers and say cheaper workers won't provide quality protection.

As for the $23 million nursing home sale, opponents say that municipal long-term care centers, in historically taking the sickest and costliest patients when their for-profit counterparts will not, are exactly the "safety net for the most vulnerable" that Bellone referenced in his inauguration.

"I'm the son of a Democrat and the grandson of a Democrat," said the legislature's Republican minority leader, John M. Kennedy Jr. of Nesconset. "They believed in hard work and self-sufficiency but always worked for care of the poor and the ill. Frankly, I don't think many Democrats would even recognize the posture of the administration, let alone embrace it as something that emulates their ideals."

Republicans outside the debate are more understanding.

"I think Bellone is looking for places where he can cut costs and have a new flow of money, when nobody's even going to mention raising taxes," said Stanley Klein, LIU Post political science professor and Huntington GOP committeeman. "When you can't get a stream of money from raising taxes, you have to be kind of creative. And in that creativity, you make enemies."

The legislature's Democratic majority leader, DuWayne Gregory of Amityville, opposes privatization "as a principle," but said Suffolk has "a dynamic we haven't faced before."

"When state monies and subsidies dry up, and revenues decrease," he said, "you're forced to look at things you wouldn't have in the past."

Another observer said it's common to see political role reversal in municipal debates, as opposed to federally, where privatizing Medicare has become a red-versus-blue issue.

"Ideologically, at the local level you don't see these battles between liberals and conservatives," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's nonpartisan National Center for Suburban Studies.

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