Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has taken a $35,000 pay increase after freezing his pay for eight years, saying county finances have improved even as Suffolk struggles with $2 billion in debt.
Bellone will make $222,124 annually in his final term while still taking a pay cut — he could make $10,000 more under county law.
Still, he will be paid 19% more than he was during his first two terms, when he took larger pay cuts. He held his pay at $187,000 a year, even as the amount he could take home grew under county law.
The pay change came from Bellone writing a Dec. 18 memo to budget director Eric Naughton, saying he is reducing his pay for the ninth year in a row but at a lower level than in years past “in light of the county’s improved financial condition.”
“While the County’s finances have improved significantly, we still have more work to do, which is why I will continue to lead by example by cutting my pay by $10,000 a year over the next four years,” Bellone said in a statement.
But Republican county officials have contested that finances have improved.
Republican county Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., who ran against Bellone in November, criticized Bellone’s raise, citing the county’s poor finances. He noted that Bellone’s recent reelection campaign focused on his pay cuts and he attacked Kennedy for taking cost-of-living raises.
“No CEO gets a raise when the condition of the entity gets worse,” said Kennedy, who will make $197,681 this year and who said he has not taken longevity pay he is entitled to receive as a longtime county employee. “That’s what is happening here.”
Suffolk had the most fiscal stress of any other county in the state in 2018, according to State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office. Its debt hit $2.2 billion that year, a 61% increase from 2008, according to DiNapoli’s office, which noted that most of the debt growth happened before 2012, when Bellone took office.
The county also had an operating deficit of $26.5 million and a fund balance deficit of $285 million at the end of 2018, according to DiNapoli’s office.
But Bellone said the county is not in the “massive fiscal crisis” he inherited when he took office in 2012 and that prompted him to take a pay cut in the first place. He said he reduced a deficit that was expected to reach $530 million between 2011 and 2013. He said the county’s bond rating has stabilized, even though it was downgraded at least seven times during his tenure.
Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said the county’s financial position has indeed improved. He said the 2020 budget is expected to put the county “in the black” if sales tax revenues are as high as projected.
Calarco also noted Bellone is still making less than he could while running a county with 1.5 million residents, 12,000 employees and a $3.2-billion budget.
“If you want to have quality people working in our government as elected officials and leaders, we need to make sure we provide an appropriate salary,” Calarco said.
Alex Camarda, senior policy adviser for good-government group Reinvent Albany, said Bellone’s pay freeze was “largely symbolic” and his raise impacts residents far less than how government is spending money overall.
“That’s what the residents should really be focused on, rather than increases and decreases of the Suffolk County Executive’s salary,” Camarda said.
Bellone will make more money this year than any other county executive in the metropolitan area, including Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties, according to the Nassau comptroller’s office, news reports and payroll data obtained and published by conservative think tank Empire Center for Public Policy.
His salary will be about $3,000 less than Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s pay of $225,000 and $25,000 more than Nassau County Executive Laura Curran’s pay of $196,375, according to state law and the county comptroller’s office. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made $258,541 in 2019, according to Empire Center data.
Bellone’s pay increase comes at the start of his final four-year term in office under county term limits and after a reelection campaign that focused on his pay cuts, aimed at saving taxpayer money.
Bellone's salary cuts saved $274,686 in his first two terms as Bellone voluntarily gave up $34,336 a year on average, according to pay figures provided by Bellone’s office.
He could have taken home more money — up to $208,800 in 2012 and $232,124 in 2020 — under a county law that automatically provides cost of living increases.
His pay increase at the start of his final term — $35,124 — is nearly equal to the average amount Bellone saved by taking less in salary than he could have taken.
All elected county officials, except for the district attorney, are in the middle of a wage freeze enacted through a 2017 county law. Five legislators have also taken a voluntary pay cut, ranging from $582 to $2,594 a year, according to the county comptroller’s office.
Bellone’s raise is allowed because he will still make less than the amount, $232,124, at which his approved salary was frozen, Calarco said.