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Suffolk officials: $800 million budget shortfall could mean job cuts

Suffolk County Budget Director Eric Naughton offers testimony

Suffolk County Budget Director Eric Naughton offers testimony in August 2017.   Credit: Howard Schnapp

Suffolk County budget officials said Tuesday that “everything is on the table” to address an expected shortfall of at least $800 million, including potential layoffs, park closures and other spending cuts.

Budget officials said county legislators could consider laying off 200 employees, delaying employee paychecks and seeking tax increases as the coronavirus has caused revenues to plummet.

Cuts would likely impact services, said Eric Naughton, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s budget director. They could include closing parks, cutting bus routes and reviewing payments to contract agencies.

“There will have to be reductions and they will be painful,” Naughton told the County Legislature’s budget and finance committee.

Suffolk is expected to lose $807 million through 2021 as high unemployment, lower consumer spending and reduced commuting is expected to cut into the county’s largest revenue streams, the legislature’s Budget Review Office said Tuesday. That projection does not include the impact of a potentialsecond economic shutdown.

Lance Reinheimer, the budget review office director, said the county could save $21 million by laying off 200 employees, $28 million by lagging payroll by one day each pay period and $25 million by deferring a pension payment. He also said county lawmakers could ask the State Legislature to increase the county sales tax rate by 0.25%, and the home energy tax rate by 1.5%. But the office's proposals would still only make up about $150 million in shortfall, he said. 

“Without federal support, it’s catastrophic,” Reinheimer said.

Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said that the budget proposals likely don’t “go far enough.”

“Across the entirety of the budget, everyone will have to feel pain,” Hahn said. “That’s just a reality of the situation we’re in.”

Suffolk's shortfall could be up to $1.5 billion over three years, according to a recent report from a COVID-19 fiscal impact task force that Bellone assembled. The expected deficit for 2020 ranges from $432 million and $590 million, according to figures from the legislature's budget office and the task force. 

Bellone has already asked departments to identify 5% in potential cuts ahead of next year’s proposed budget. Officials have also moved $29 million from department budgets into a reserve account, increased borrowing to make payroll and delayed $30 million in longevity pay for union members, Naughton said.

County union leaders objected to potential layoffs, citing the crucial role of Suffolk employees during the pandemic.

“Cutting workers would be devastating to our region,” especially as public workers have been pulled from “already understaffed departments” to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing, said Daniel Levler, president of the 6,000-member Association of Municipal Employees.

Legis. Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) said officials should seek concessions from the unions.  

"The last thing I want to do is lay off employees," Berland said.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said officials should "get some serious cuts" from the unions. Trotta pointed to a tabulation by Reinheimer that pay for top step police officers is expected to increase by 75% between 2013 and 2024. That figure includes salaries, pay benefits such as longevity and the county’s Social Security contributions.

Noel DiGerolamo, president of the county Police Benevolent Association, disputed Reinheimer's tabulation and said police who are "continuously under attack while giving up their personal safety on a daily basis" should not be expected to make more concessions.

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