Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Friday proposed a $3.11 billion 2019 budget he said would eliminate the county’s structural deficit but increase property taxes for police services by 3.5 percent.
The proposed budget increases spending by $52 million, but Bellone said it remains within the state’s two percent property tax cap, and includes no new fees.
The increase in police district taxes, paid by property owners in Suffolk’s five western towns, which will average $44.84 more for a typical homeowner, compared with their current bill of $1,263.
Despite the rise in police taxes, the county complies with the cap because there is no increase in general fund property taxes paid by all Suffolk property owners and an 11 percent reduction in the property taxes for the 72,000 residents of the Southwest Sewer District in Babylon and Islip.
Nine of the county’s two dozen smaller sewer district have three percent tax hikes, while others will remain flat or have a smaller increases.
“This is an under-the-tax-cap, no fee increase budget and more importantly it brings us into structural balance,” said Bellone. “All the tough decisions we’ve made to protect taxpayers over the years has brought us to this point.”
Bellone unveiled his proposal a day after Moody’s Investor Services dropped the county's bond rating by a notch. The Wall Street rating agency cited a “deteriorated financial position“ due to recurring operating deficits, pension payment deferrals and significant cash flow borrowing.
However, the Bellone touted his proposed budget is “structurally balanced” because the county in 2019 will defer no more payments to the state pension system. Suffolk deferred $32.1 million in payments earlier this year and owes the state $275 million which must be repaid over the next decade.
Republican lawmakers challenged Bellone’s assertion, noting the county not only owes the state pension system, but also will owe the county’s sewer assessment stabilization fund $154.2 million. The county made its first $8.5 million payment on the in-house loan this year, and annual payments will continue for a decade.
“While we all want the county to succeed, it’s hard to imagine the structural deficit has disappeared,” said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), minority caucus leader. Cilmi said Bellone has a history of “balancing budgets on over estimated revenues and under estimated expenses.”
While the 2018 budget estimated $30 million in health care concessions from county unions which have not materialized, the proposed 2019 budget projects $27 million in savings from concessions. The savings would come from rebidding of the county's prescription drug contract, and new technologies such as a telephone service to help diagnose minor health issues.
Bellone’s spending package is buoyed by projections that sales tax receipts will grow by 4.9 percent this year and another 3.5 percent in 2019, bringing in an estimated $73.5 million.
As of Sept. 15, sales tax receipts had risen by 5.01 percent for the year. The county had budgeted a 2.8 percent increase.
Bellone also estimates that Suffolk will get $1 million in extra revenue this year and next from Suffolk Off Track Betting because of the success of Jake’s 58 new video lottery terminal casino in Islandia.
The budget calls for classes of 87 new police officers, 50 corrections officers and 12 sheriff’s deputies this fall, and similar-sized classes late next year, although numbers have not been determined.
Next year's budget also includes 31 new county positions, with the largest number (13) in Social Services. The jobs are funded fully by the state, administration aides said.
Legislative presiding officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said he has not yet seen the budget. But he said lawmakers will scrutinize the package, weed out faulty cost and spending estimates and make sure crucial programs are protected.