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Suffolk legislature keeps service, job cuts in 2021 budget

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in a statement,

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in a statement, said he wants the federal goverment to quickly deliver pandemic-related relief so the county can avoid making deep cuts outlined in its 2021 budget.   Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Suffolk legislature allowed County Executive Steve Bellone’s 2021 budget to pass without any major changes Monday, sending the county on a path toward deep cuts that would affect its workforce and Suffolk's most vulnerable residents during a pandemic and recession.

Legislators did approve a series of largely technical amendments that left a majority of the proposed $3.2-billion budget untouched.

Lawmakers offered no substantive alternatives to Bellone's proposed cuts, which include eliminating 500 full-time jobs, curtailing bus and disability transit services and reducing funding to community clinics, public health agencies and nonprofits.

The budget is "one we'd rather not have," Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said. But the legislature had "no real options" given revenue losses, including an estimated $400-million shortfall in sales tax revenues over two years.

"It is painful. It is ugly," Calarco said of the budget. "It has a dramatic impact on services."

The cuts, proposed as the county faces a $1.5 billion projected deficit over three years, would take effect in July in the hopes new federal aid would help avert them.

"These cuts should not happen, and that is why Washington must act as quickly as possible to deliver direct disaster aid," Bellone said in a statement.

Democratic legislators also said the county needs more federal aid and vowed to revisit the budget before cuts would go into effect. But Republicans said they could not support the 2021 spending plan, blaming the "draconian cuts" partly on the county’s poor financial condition before the coronavirus pandemic.

"In plain terms, the proposed budget is a mess beyond repair," Minority Leader Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said in a statement.

Greenport resident Christopher North criticized the legislature for not countering Bellone's proposed cuts Monday. He described plans to eliminate nearly half the county's bus routes as "disgraceful."

"Not taking a vote or doing something about this at all is mind-blowing," said North, who runs a self-titled graphic design business.

Under the budget, staffing in the health and police departments as well as the sheriff’s office would reach lows not seen in years through attrition, retirements and no new law enforcement academy classes.

There would be 200 fewer corrections officers than is required to staff the jails, the county's Budget Review Office said. Health department personnel will probably dip below 600 employees, less than half the number budgeted a decade ago, as the pandemic is expected to continue through the spring.

Legislators would have to decide next year which employees to lay off. The workforce reduction will probably lead to park closures or weekend-only operations, increased overtime costs and larger payout costs to departing employees, officials have said.

The county workforce is already a "skeletal work crew," Calarco said.

"There's no way for them to continue to provide services with severe cuts," Calarco said of employees. "It's no longer a question of how do we do more with less but what services are going to stop."

According to the county’s largest public employee union, the Association of Municipal Employees, the county workforce has shrunk by 14% since 2012. Yet demand for services has increased dramatically during the pandemic, including the county's supplemental nutrition program, known as SNAP, which has seen demand increase by 175% this year, AME representative Ryan McGarry said.

One of the amendments approved Monday would allow any unbudgeted revenues to be used to avoid layoffs.

Legislators also voted against a measure that would have restored salary funding for the comptroller's office. Comptroller John Kennedy said his office needs all its current employees to help generate revenue for the county. But legislators said they don't want to show favoritism to one office when all county departments could face layoffs.

Bellone has 36 hours to veto any legislative amendments.

"What do we tell our health care workers who are protecting us against COVID but they're not making us money?" Legis. Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) asked. "There are departments that are saving lives that can't raise money."

The budget could also have an immediate $68-million budget hole, legislative budget analysts said. The budget assumes the passage of Proposition 2, a ballot measure to take money from a sewer fund to plug budget holes. But the outcome of the measure is not secure. It was leading by about 38,000 votes on Election Day, but elections officials won't finish counting nearly 170,000 absentee ballots until around Thanksgiving.

This year was also the first time two sitting legislators allowed a budget to pass that will cut spending to agencies involved in their own arrests. Legis. Rudy Sunderman (R-Shirley) has pleaded not guilty to charges including perjury for allegedly lying to the county Board of Ethics. Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), who pleaded not guilty last month to charges related to allegations he traded opioid pills for sex, was on the working group responsible for proposing legislative budget moves.

The Legislature on Monday also:

  • Appointed Odette Hall, the county’s deputy chief medical examiner, as its chief medical examiner. Hall of Babylon replaces Michael Caplan, who has accepted a position at the University of Michigan.
  • Suspended the public financing of campaigns for two years given revenue constraints. The program was supposed to start for 2021 county elections.

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