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Robert Lipp, key Suffolk budget expert, retires in the face of county fiscal problems

Robert Lipp, director of budget review at the

Robert Lipp, director of budget review at the Suffolk County Legislature Budget Review Office, on Thursday. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Robert Lipp, who advised the Suffolk County Legislature on budget issues for decades, has retired, citing political obstacles to righting county finances.

Lipp, director of the legislature’s nonpartisan budget review office, left last Friday after 35 years in the budget office — and just a week before Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is scheduled to propose his new annual budget.

Lipp said he doubted he would be able to accomplish much more if he remained in office until his term expires at the end of the year.

He said it was unlikely the County Legislature would act on his prescriptions for the county budget — possibly including raising sales taxes or cutting costs — because they would not be politically popular. And he wants to spend more time with his family.

“I’ve done what I could, and now it’s time to get out,” said Lipp, 68, of St. James.

Lipp began working for the budget review office on July 30, 1984, as an assistant economist and became director seven years ago. The office reviews and analyzes the county’s operating and capital budgets and evaluates fiscal impacts.

When his retirement was announced at a Sept. 4 County Legislature meeting, legislators and staff gave him a standing ovation. They called his retirement a tremendous loss.

“I can’t underscore what a big asset he is as a person with his skill set,” Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said.

Lipp said he worked to improve the county’s finances, but “I don’t think I was too successful.” While he can make recommendations, the county budget is determined by the legislature and county executive.

Lipp said his achievements in office included introducing a statistical branch of economics into sales tax forecasts and creating new ways to calculate debt service for municipalities and average tax bills for residents.

Lipp said he decided to leave now because the inherent conflict between the “analytical and the political” has become exacerbated by declining finances. He did not place blame on any particular officials.

Lipp said the county’s financial trouble began during the recent recession, when sales tax revenue — a primary source of county revenues — dropped by about $180 million between 2008 and 2012.

“We haven’t really recovered from that,” Lipp said.

The county increased borrowing, amassing $883 million in debt over the past decade for operating expenses, according to a 2018 budget review report.

According to the report, the debt stems from borrowing of:

  • $258 million from a national tobacco settlement fund since 2008.
  • $70 million from the sale and lease-back of the county’s H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge in 2013.
  • $384 million from New York State for pension costs since 2011.
  • And $171.3 million from a county sewer fund from 2014 to 2017.

With such debt and the required debt service payments, it is difficult to fund operations and new initiatives, including significant ones aimed at improving water quality and the environment, Lipp said.

Lipp said the last time the county had a serious financial problem, in the early 1990s, it recovered after officials raised sales taxes by 1 percent over two years.

A similar effort now would help but is unlikely because it would require state legislation that Lipp said would face uncertain prospects in Albany.

Other measures that could improve county finances, such as freezing wages or further cutting the size of the county workforce, are controversial and “not the nicest thing to do,” he said — and the same goes for raising taxes.

Gregory said there is no political consensus for such actions. He said the county has raised fees where it could and consolidated some services.

“There’s very few ways to address [the budget issues] other than raising taxes or severely cutting services, and it’s just not something you’re able to get a majority support on,” Gregory said.

Lipp did cite some progress, including a recent agreement to require all county employees to contribute to their health care costs for the first time. The initiative will save Suffolk an estimated $143 million to $188 million, according to a recent budget review report.

Jason Elan, a spokesman for Bellone, thanked Lipp for his service but declined to respond to Lipp’s comments about county finances.

County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., a Republican who is running against Bellone, a Democrat, for county executive in November, said he would “absolutely do what’s necessary in order to fix the budget.”

Deputy budget review director Rosalind Gazes will run the department until a legislative committee selects Lipp’s replacement, Gregory said.

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