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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delays 2021 budget submission

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Brentwood on

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Brentwood on Sept. 18. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has delayed filing his proposed 2021 budget for a second time, prompting concern among county legislators that they will lack adequate time to review a spending plan expected to include significant cuts, officials said.

Bellone issued an emergency order two weeks ago to push back the Sept. 18 deadline for submission of the county executive budget, mandated in the county charter, to Oct. 2. But his budget was still not complete Friday, spokesman Derek Poppe said.

Poppe said the proposed budget would be finished "soon" but could not say when. The process was delayed by issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, including diversion of budget staff to keep track of COVID-19-related expenses, according to Poppe and the emergency order.

"While we continue to finalize the budget during these unprecedented times, we need the federal government to step up and deliver disaster assistance to protect local taxpayers and first responders," Poppe said.

Bellone has said that without more federal aid, he would have to make drastic budget cuts in 2021, including slashing $20 million from the police department, $13 million from county bus service and $20 million from contract agencies that provide health care services.

The adopted 2020 budget is $3.2 billion.

Suffolk faces a projected deficit of about $320 million this year, according to Fitch Ratings, which on Thursday affirmed the county’s rating of BBB+ with a negative outlook.

The delay in the 2021 budget is expected to further complicate an already arduous budget process, officials said. The County Legislature is scheduled to vote on the budget Nov. 4, and, under state law, must approve related tax warrants by Dec. 1.

Presiding Officer Robert Calarco said he understood Bellone's "not wanting to present the most dire budget if the federal government acts in time to avert that."

But "we’re running up against the clock," said Calarco (D-Patchogue).

Bond sales needed to help finance government operations, including a round of $100 million in borrowing this month, are stalled without the proposed budget, which is needed to finalize cash flow projections, said county Comptroller John Kennedy, a Republican.

That $100 million in bonds will be "backstopped" with access to the Federal Reserve's Municipal Liquidity Facility, according to Fitch. The Fed program, established during the pandemic to help state and local governments manage cash flow, will purchase up to $500 billion of short-term notes directly from states and municipalities.

Kennedy said the county only will use the program if it can't sell bonds to traditional investors because the expected 3.25% interest rate from the Fed program would be higher than the expected market rate of up to 3%.

Kennedy called the delay in Bellone's budget submission, "highly irresponsible. That action and conduct is undermining and compromising the present fragile integrity of county finances."

Poppe said Kennedy does not need the new county budget to complete cash flow projections and close on bond sales.

Suffolk’s charter requires the county executive to submit a budget proposal on the third Friday in September. Bellone used his power during the county’s state of emergency, in place since March 12, to extend the deadline by two weeks. He had not extended the order again as of Friday afternoon.

Poppe did not respond to a question about what legal mechanism or authority Bellone was using to push back the deadline.

The county charter requires the Legislature to approve a budget by Nov. 10, although lawmakers could take advantage of language in Bellone's executive order to delay final passage for up to two more weeks.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday she expected to strike a pandemic relief deal with the administration of President Donald Trump. Democrats had sought a $2.2 trillion package, while the administration recently offered some $1.6 trillion, although talks appear to have picked up steam.

Referring to Bellone's recent announcements of potential budget cuts, legislative Minority Leader Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said, "if the county executive is waiting on additional funding from the federal government, then he’d better stop with the press conferences and get on the phone with Speaker Pelosi" to get her to agree to the Republicans' offer.

The county has received $283 million in federal CARES Act funding for coronavirus relief, but Bellone has said the county needs more aid to cover revenue losses.

In Nassau, which like Suffolk faces significant losses of sales tax and other revenues because of the pandemic, County Executive Laura Curran proposed her 2021 budget on time last month. The $3.3 billion proposal included tens of millions of dollars in spending cuts.

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