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County executive candidates debate over Suffolk's fiscal condition

Suffolk County executive candidates Steve Bellone, John M.

Suffolk County executive candidates Steve Bellone, John M. Kennedy Jr. and Greg Fischer, from left, at debate Thursday at News 12 studios in Woodbury. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The candidates for Suffolk County executive on Thursday offered starkly different views of the county’s financial condition in their last formal debate before Election Day.

Steve Bellone, the Democratic incumbent, argued during an hourlong debate on News 12 Long Island that he has helped turn around a “fiscal crisis.”

John M. Kennedy Jr., the Republican Suffolk County comptroller, and Libertarian Party candidate Gregory Fischer said the fiscal crisis is continuing.

Watch the Suffolk county executive and Nassau district attorney debates on News 12 Plus (Ch. 61) and on News12.com.

Bellone, who first was elected in 2012, said he has worked to reduce a budget deficit dating from 2011, and blamed budget issues on Kennedy, who previously spent 10 years as a county legislator.

Bellone said if Kennedy “believes there’s a fiscal crisis that he helped to create," he owes residents an explanation of "what is he willing to do” about it.  

Kennedy said he has not worked on preparation of county budgets since 2014, when he was elected comptroller.

Kennedy said Suffolk’s finances have worsened since Bellone became county executive. Kennedy pointed to seven downgrades of the county's bond rating and a recent state comptroller’s report that ranked Suffolk as the most fiscally stressed county in New York in 2018.

Kennedy also said county property taxes and fees have risen by hundreds of millions of dollars since 2012.

But “with all of that massive infusion, we still wind up spending more than we take in,” Kennedy said.

Fischer, a semiretired business strategist and consultant, blamed Bellone and Kennedy for the county’s fiscal state, as they're Suffolk's two top officials.

“That’s a problem if they can’t fix it,” Fischer said.

During the debate at News 12’s Woodbury studios, moderator Doug Geed, a News 12 anchor, asked Bellone whether it “is unfair to call yourself a protector of taxpayers” because of the fee hikes, including for alarm systems.

Fees rose by a total of $80 million in 2016 and 2017, according to the county legislature's nonpartisan Budget Review Office.

Bellone defended his fiscal choices, saying he did not want to burden taxpayers by piercing the state property tax cap.

County property taxes have increased since 2013 by about $80 million, primarily for police services, budget reports show.

Kennedy did not answer directly when asked if he would cut fees as county executive. But he said he would examine payments — which he called fees — to contract agencies that provide services that are not mandated.

Bellone blamed the county's ranking in DiNapoli's fiscal stress report on the projected deficit, which Bellone said began to develop before  he took office and would be eliminated by the end of 2020.

The Budget Review Office on Thursday projected an operating deficit of about $35 million in 2019 and 2020.

A spokeswoman for the office said their projections differ from those of the county executive's budget office because the legislative office is more conservative in their estimate of sales tax revenues.

The candidates also sparred about water quality improvement plans, the county red-light camera program and the future for Suffolk’s downtowns. They largely stuck to their campaign talking points, at times repeating almost verbatim what they said at a League of Women Voters debate earlier this week.

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