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Steve Bellone offers plan to overhaul Suffolk tax law

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks at a

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks at a news conference in Hauppauge on Jan. 11. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

County Executive Steve Bellone proposed on Wednesday overhauling the county Tax Act so Suffolk can start getting its share of property taxes in January, rather than waiting six months and borrowing to pay bills in the meantime.

Bellone made the suggestion as part of a seven-point proposal he dubbed “Securing Suffolk’s Financial Future.”

He said the plan would “strengthen the county’s fiscal position moving forward,” although he could not say how much Suffolk might save from any of the initiatives.

In making his pitch, Bellone said the overhaul of the 100-year-old Tax Act, which will require state legislation, should be a bipartisan issue. He said Legis. Tom Cilmi, leader of the GOP caucus, chaired a committee that recommended changes to the law.

“This would ensure the county would get property tax revenues it is owed at the beginning of the year, instead of waiting until June,” Bellone said.

Cilmi, of Bay Shore, said the panel made no recommendation about replacing the current system because other levels of government would have to increase borrowing

“You have to get a lot of jurisdictions to buy in . . . ,” said Cilmi. “It’s too much of a jump to say this is the right thing to do without further study.”

Under the Tax Act, Suffolk's 10 towns collect property taxes in January and June. Towns and school districts get their entire tax levies paid first. The county then usually receives its property tax revenue beginning in June.

The county also is responsible for collecting taxes, interest and penalties from those who are delinquent, which generates about $45 million a year.

Suffolk does $455 million in short-term borrowings to keep the county in operation until revenue comes in, incurring $6 million in interest, according to the committee report.

The report also found that the transition to a new system similar to Nassau County's could mean an average one-time increase of $3,600 in property tax bills, or floating of a $1.2 billion county bond.

Babylon Supervisor Richard Schaffer, head of the Suffolk town supervisors association, said the “conversation has gone on for years, but it would take three seconds for us to say no” to Bellone's plan.

Kenneth Bossert, head of the Suffolk School Superintendents Association, did not return calls for comment.

Bellone also called for re-establishing a dedicated insurance reserve fund, created in 1980, that would remain in place to pay unexpected lawsuit awards, rather than bonding such costs.

Over the past five years, such awards averaged $9.5 million, but last year they climbed to $20.8 million.

Bellone also called for a four-year budget plan, new debt management and fund balance policies and the purchase of new computer software to increase accountability.

He also called for increasing the membership of the joint audit committee, which hires the county's outside auditor.

Suffolk Comptroller John M. Kennedy, Bellone’s GOP opponent in November, criticized Bellone's audit proposal as an attempt to curtail the comptroller's powers.

Of the other proposals, Kennedy said, “What it looks like to me is, ‘too little too late.’ It’s an election-year stunt to make him look fiscally prudent . . . after digging a financial hole for eight years.”

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