Republican John M. Kennedy Jr. officially kicked off his campaign for Suffolk County executive Monday, taking aim at fee increases and bond rating downgrades during the tenure of incumbent Democrat Steve Bellone.
Kennedy, the Suffolk County comptroller, launched his “Fiscal Reality Tour” outside a boarded-up diner in Huntington Station — a site he said exemplified the poor business climate under Bellone, who is seeking a third term. Kennedy was surrounded by five other Republicans, including two candidates for Suffolk County Legislature.
“It’s time to point out what has been the legacy of Steve Bellone,” said Kennedy, who cited a "plethora of fees that have been put into place under the guise of holding the line on taxes."
Kennedy said, if elected, he would balance the county budget by cutting payroll costs. His proposals include partnering more with town governments, eliminating positions for county land planners who he said examine issues ultimately decided by town governments and reducing the number of departments with redundant functions. As an example, Kennedy cited the merger of the county comptroller and treasurer's offices several years ago.
"We have been bleeding red ink," Kennedy said. "We have never been closer to the margin when it comes to covering daily operating expenses."
Kennedy, 63, pointed to millions of dollars in new fees implemented since Bellone took office in 2012, including for cremations and car registrations.
Fees increased by a total of $80 million in 2016 and 2017, according to the county legislature's nonpartisan Budget Review Office.
Kennedy also pointed to bond rating downgrades during Bellone's tenure. In the most recent downgrade last year, Moody’s Investors Service gave county bonds ratings of Baa1 and Baa2, citing the county's "deteriorated financial position" due to recurring operating deficits and cash flow borrowing.
Bellone campaign spokesman Derek Poppe said, "The County Executive is proud to have stayed under the [state] property tax cap in every year of his administration while never raising the county tax. He stands by his record."
The county has levied the same amount in property taxes — $49 million — for the general fund since 2010. But this year it is expected to take in nearly $685 million in total property taxes when accounting for special districts, including the police district, which covers the five western towns, said Robert Lipp, director of the legislative budget review office. In 2013, the total property tax levy was $605.6 million, according to county executive budget documents.
The police district levy of $591 million accounts for about 86 percent of the county's total property tax levy under the 2019 adopted budget, Lipp said.
Kennedy announced his run for county executive in February, surrounded by 80 supporters, and held a campaign kickoff fundraiser in May. Kennedy has been county comptroller since 2015 and previously was a member of the county legislature for 12 years.
His wife, Leslie Kennedy, is a Republican county legislator for the 12th District.
According to campaign filings in July, John M. Kennedy Jr. had $205,000 in campaign funds on hand, while Bellone had approximately $2 million.