Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Friday proposed a trimmed-down $3.19 billion operating budget for 2021, cutting 500 full-time employees and nearly half the county's bus routes, while raising police district taxes by 1.9%.
Bellone, a Democrat, said the staffing and service cuts could be prevented if the Trump administration and Congress agree on a new pandemic relief bill that would provide direct federal disaster assistance.
"This is a COVID-19 budget that reflects a failure in Washington," said Bellone, who for weeks had warned of deep cuts to county services and delayed releasing his executive budget.
"We have to put forward a budget based on Washington not acting," Bellone said.
Most of the planned spending cuts would not take effect until July 1 and could be rescinded if the county receives federal aid for 2021, Bellone said.
According to the budget proposal, which must win approval of the Suffolk County Legislature, the county faces a two-year budget gap of $437 million and a projected multi-year shortfall of more than $1 billion due to the drop in retail spending and the resulting steep decline in sales tax receipts.
Sales taxes represent about 40% of total county revenue.
Total spending in Bellone's 2021 budget plan is $33 million less than in his 2020 proposal.
The proposal does have new revenues from a 1.9% hike in police district taxes, which is just under the state tax cap of 2%.
The police district covers Suffolk’s five western towns. The five eastern towns pay for their own police departments, although they use Suffolk County Police for some services.
Bellone also said the proposal cuts taxes for residents of the Southwest Sewer District, although officials did not respond to questions about the amount.
The cuts of 500 full-time county jobs would occur through attrition, layoffs and incentives for early retirements, for savings of saving about $25 million in 2021, according to the proposed budget.
Daniel Levler, president of the Suffolk AME, the county's largest public employee union, said Bellone's budget was "more of a message to Washington" than a plan to address the county's fiscal crisis.
"When it comes to the vital services our members provide, it’s clear that we are essential, not expendable and the budget ultimately passed by the legislature needs to reflect that reality," Levler said in a statement.
"Moving forward, we will vigorously fight for Suffolk’s fair share of Federal aid and fight against any reckless attempts to reduce essential government services," Levler said.
The proposed budget also saves $13 million by cutting 19 Suffolk bus routes -- or 46 % of all county routes -- impacting 2,300 rides daily, administration officials said.
The bus cuts also will impact the Suffolk County Accessible Transportation service. Elimination of paratransit service not required under the Americans with Disability Act will save $5 million and affect 200 daily riders.
The legislature's presiding officer, Rob Calarco, said lawmakers would postpone their vote on budget amendments from Nov. 4 to Nov. 16 because of the unusually late release of the executive budget.
The budget had been due Sept. 18 under the county charter. Bellone aides blamed the delay on issues related to the pandemic.
"It's going to be an extremely difficult budget year," said Calarco (D-Patchogue). "There will be a lot of pain."
Minority Leader Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) called it "extremely premature" to be discussing layoffs or reductions to staff or county services.
Bellone's budget calls for a $20 million cut in funding for the county and sheriff's departments, which would lead to cancellation of two classes of police recruits and one deputy sheriff’s class. The cancellations would delay hiring of 200 new police officers and about 40 deputy sheriffs, who also train at the county Police Academy. The county also will freeze promotions for sworn officers.
"I would fully hope he continues to fund the police department and enough new positions to account for the retirements so we don't lose officers on the street," Cilmi said.
In May, Suffolk received $257 million in federal aid through the CARES Act to help deal with a $325 million revenue loss for 2020. Bellone warned that without additional funds for 2021, the county is in "unprecendented circumstances."
PROPOSED 2021 SUFFOLK COUNTY BUDGET
Total spending: $3.197 billion
Total projected deficit: $437 million in fiscal years 2021 and 2022
1.9% increase in the county police district
County employees: Cuts 500 full-time jobs
Suffolk bus: $13 million in annualized savings by cutting 19 routes (46% of the total)
County police and sheriff’s departments: $20 million in funding cuts
Contract agencies: $16 million in annualized savings from 50% across-the-board cuts to agencies that provide substance abuse, mental health and other services
Source: Suffolk County executive