Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone proposed on Friday a $3.057 billion operating budget for 2018 that will add 235 new police officers through next year, while freezing the general tax rate and increasing police district taxes in the five western towns by an average of $46 per homeowner.
The proposed budget includes no layoffs and no new fee increases. It is aided by better-than-expected sales tax revenue so far this year, but banks on major union concessions on health insurance.
“This is a good solid budget that keeps us on track,” Bellone said in a briefing before filing his proposed spending plan with the Suffolk County Legislature. He said the new budget reduces the structural deficit to $30 million a year, from $130 million, continues borrowing to pay pension costs and reduces one-shot revenues to their lowest level in a decade.
Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, head of the Republican caucus, said Bellone’s budget includes “a lot of wishful thinking” by including massive savings from union concessions that haven’t yet materialized and projections of higher sales tax revenue.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said, “I like the broad strokes of the budget from what I’m hearing but we have to look at the details.”
Budget Director Connie Corso said that after several lean years, 2017 sales tax receipts were coming in higher than expected, increasing 4.66 percent, compared with the 1.39 percent increase budgeted this year.
While the 2017 budget estimated $23.7 million in cost savings from union concessions, Bellone said the new budget does not anticipate those savings in 2017. However, the new budget projects $30 million in savings in 2018 resulting from negotiations underway with county unions over a proposal to have all employees for the first time share in the cost of health insurance and other changes. Since 2013, new employees have paid a 15 percent share of health premiums. Bellone has voluntarily paid 15 percent of his health costs since 2012.
While no agreement with unions has been reached, Bellone said he was encouraged that “all parties acknowledge that health costs continue to rise by an unsustainable amount.” The new budget estimates that health care costs will go $13.3 million over budget in 2017, and rise by another $44.2 million next year.
McCaffrey warned about budgeting based on large union concessions: “I don’t think they are far along enough in negotiations to budget any kind of savings.” He also raised concerns about Bellone’s sales tax estimates. “I’d be reluctant to budget increases for what in the past have been spikes, not trends,” said McCaffrey, of Lindenhurst.
Bellone said union talks are progressing, and that the sales tax estimate is conservative.
Bellone’s budget calls for a new police class of 170 starting Oct. 2 and another of 65 officers next year. As of January, the department had 2,508 officers, but currently is at 2,389 because of retirements. While the crime rate has dropped 26 percent since taking office, Bellone said hiring is needed to replace retiring officers at a lower cost, fight gangs and opioid abuse and reduce overtime.
Police overtime this year was budgeted for $32.5 million, but the new budget estimates the cost will come in at $38.6 million. Bellone is budgeting $33.6 for overtime next year.
Noel DiGerolamo, Suffolk PBA president, said he was pleased by Bellone’s plans for a new class, and “happy to assist” the county in talks, but declined to comment on the size of concessions under discussion or when a deal might be struck. “But I am unaware of where they are coming up with these numbers. My calculations are significantly different,” he said, adding, “I just hope the class goes in as scheduled.”
Bellone’s budget calls for ending the $600,000 health department’s tobacco cessation program, which last year helped 200 smokers quit. It would eliminate public health nursing services for those who have their own health insurance but continue the services for low-income residents without health coverage. The move would reassign 12 public health nurses.The county general property tax rate will remain unchanged, but the police district rate will rise by 4.85 percent. The combined county general and police district property tax will remain beneath the state’s 2 percent cap budget.
Bellone also called for the creation of a unified call center for residents to use for all nonpublic safety departments. He also wants to hire two data analysts for the performance management unit so they can drill down further into department operations to streamline and cut costs or redirect resources to more crucial areas.