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Bellone, 100 days in, has 'his hands full'

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, above, backed Anthony

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, above, backed Anthony Manetta, a political strategist and fundraiser, for IDA chief executive. (Dec. 20, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone spent his 100th day in office last Monday coordinating the response to one of the largest brush fires in New York history.

In the weeks before, he had revamped police gang-fighting tactics, shuffled staffing in an effort to spur economic development and convinced the state to approve more red-light cameras.

But Bellone hit the 100-day milepost burdened by an overarching problem: Suffolk's $530 million budget gap. Two days after the fires erupted, Bellone was meeting with county legislators and department heads to plan for 422 layoffs on July 1.

"I think we're all determined to make sure that six months from now, 12 months from now, we're not in the same place," Bellone said in an interview. "That we're not having to say, 'OK, we need to reduce the workforce even more because the deficit is still there.' "

Nonetheless, some lawmakers and politicians say Bellone has been slow to address the budget hole. Others were disturbed by the distraction created by a Bellone aide's memo that attacked predecessor Steve Levy for the fiscal woes.

"The fact that we're three months in at this point and there have been relatively few specifics on how we're going to deal with the budget problem is a concern," said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who nonetheless credited Bellone for championing initiatives of his including a streamlined construction permitting process.

Bellone, a 42-year-old Democrat, ran last year on a platform of depoliticizing the police department, improving the county executive's relations with lawmakers and Latinos, and determining the depth of Suffolk's fiscal crisis.

On March 6, Bellone's special panel told lawmakers the budget deficit was far larger than they had estimated late last year.

On April 2, Bellone announced an initial round of cuts, borrowing and fee hikes that chip $162 million off the multiyear deficit. He says the toughest decisions lie ahead -- with more layoffs, union concessions and the closure of county facilities all possible.

Bellone called it important to "let the public know what the financial situation was and all be on the same page -- and then we could devote all our time from there to focus on the solution."

Vision put on hold

Bellone still must name perhaps the county's highest-profile appointee, the police commissioner. Supporters also say Bellone has been laying the groundwork for a number of ambitious initiatives.

"The visionary things are going to come, but they're going to have to wait until we get the county in the right direction," said Legis. Wayne R. Horsley (D-Babylon). "He's got his hands full. All the big things are out in front of him."

Bellone said other aspects of his agenda -- particularly his promised focus on issues important to the immigrant community -- have had to take a backseat to the budget. His panel's report said Suffolk ended 2011 with a $33 million deficit, and projected a $148 million shortfall this year and a $349 million gap in 2013.

"I'd love to be working on some other things, but we have to focus on the financial crisis," he said. "Without solving that problem, we could become Nassau County."

Nassau's finances, which for years have relied on borrowing to close deficits, are under the control of a state monitoring board. Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano defends borrowing as one of the only ways to pay for tens of millions of dollars in property tax settlements without raising taxes.

Bellone said Suffolk needs long-term fixes that may include employee contributions to their health care.

Thomas Breeden, labor co-chair of the county committee that oversees Suffolk's self-insured health plan, said unions have made major concessions that produced more than $15 million in annual savings

"We're anxious to sit down with the county executive to avoid layoffs," Breeden said. "We understand times are bad and we want to help but we don't want to be the scapegoat."

Improving relations with state lawmakers, which became icy during Levy's tenure over his stance on illegal immigration and other issues, also is a priority. Bellone said his efforts already have helped Suffolk gain victories in Albany, including approval of 50 new red-light cameras, expected to generate $6 million annually in revenue.

"Two of his strengths are consensus-building and being a collaborator," said Long Island Association president Kevin Law, a former top aide to Levy and the head of Bellone's search panel for a new police commissioner. "That's going to help him address this deficit."

Former County Executive Patrick Halpin, a Democrat who served from 1988 to 1991, recalled his mistake in announcing the deficit and proposed solutions at once. Bellone has handled the situation better by separating the issues, Halpin said.

"In my case, people skipped the part about why we have to do this and immediately criticized the solutions," Halpin recalled.

Approach draws criticism

But Levy said Bellone's lack of an immediate deficit-reduction plan invited bond rating agencies to penalize Suffolk. After the $530 million projection was announced, Moody's Investors Services dropped Suffolk's long-term debt rating by two notches. Lower ratings typically result in higher borrowing costs.

"When you lay out the bad news you better show them you have some confidence you have control over it -- that you have a game plan," Levy said.

Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle said that Bellone's first 100 days had been "quite frankly, a series of blunders." He cited the memo leak, and putting forward a deficit-reduction plan "with a lot of borrowing."

Bellone called it an "extraordinary step" just to get lawmakers and budget analysts to understand the deficit's severity.

"Without everyone agreeing on the problem, we would be -- as has happened in Suffolk County for a long time -- wasting our time arguing over what the problem is, or if there is indeed a problem," he said. "Within a month, we rolled out a bipartisan mitigation plan, and that's important."

Optimism about future

Looking forward, Bellone is hoping his decision to cut 12 county attorneys and to transfer the funding to new economic development and performance management teams pays off. Issues they are expected to address include office-space consolidation to save money on rents.

Mitchell Pally, chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute, said those actions appealed to the business community.

"I think the next 100 days can see implementation of some ideas he has that are more business-friendly, as opposed to just the deficit," Pally said, citing the appointment of Joanne Minieri, former president of the company building Atlantic Yards and the New Jersey Nets arena in Brooklyn, as economic development commissioner.

Immigrant activists say they're still waiting for Bellone to name a county liaison to their communities, but that they understand the delay.

"We certainly expect him to move forward with a progressive agenda," said Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. "But I think some of the things we would have wanted to happen immediately became impossible with the realization of the financial hole."

Last week, however, those and other issues took a backseat as Bellone dealt with the Pine Barrens fire. He spent the better part of Monday and Tuesday darting between the county command post in Manorville, where he briefed the news media frequently, and the front lines of the blaze, where he thanked and chatted with volunteer firefighters.

His most frequent talking point, repeated in almost every interview, was "we're cautiously optimistic" that the fire was under control.

It was a point he made earlier about Suffolk's broader future.

"Despite the challenges we face, I'm very optimistic about the future," Bellone said. "I'm determined to solve these problems upfront so we can focus on the things that make Suffolk County great, and really represent the potential we have."

Initiatives so far

Replaced police department brass; de-centralized anti-gang unit and emphasized intelligence-gathering at precincts.

Launched pharmacy-safety training programs for police officers and druggists.

Cut 12 county attorney positions in order to hire new economic development and performance management teams.

Pushed state to double the number of Suffolk's red-light cameras and allow creation of a local traffic violations bureau that will allow the county to keep ticket revenue.

Announced a partial plan to close $162 million of a projected $530 million budget hole. Measures include fee hikes and borrowing to spread out an expected pension bill spike in 2013.

Challenges ahead

Overseeing 420 layoffs on July 1, then devising a second-phase deficit-reduction plan.

Securing health care contributions and other cost-saving concessions from county labor unions.

Naming a new police commissioner.

Deciding the future of the John J. Foley county nursing home in Yaphank. Developing programs to aid immigrant communities, as promised in the 2011 election campaign.

Compiled by Paul Larocco

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