Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Wednesday night that with Suffolk facing "the greatest fiscal crisis in its history," he and his top aides will freeze their salaries and start paying a portion of their health care.
The actions "send a clear message that we are all in this together," the Democrat declared in his State of the County speech, delivered at the legislature auditorium in Hauppauge.
"I will not ask others to sacrifice or to do more with less," he said, "unless I am willing to do so myself."
Budget analysts say the county ended 2011 with a $60.5-million deficit and, with no action, could face an additional $497 million hole this year and next.
"We know young people have been leaving our region at record rates for more than 20 years in search of better opportunities," Bellone said. "We know Suffolk is facing the greatest fiscal crisis in its history."
Bellone's freezing of his $187,000 annual salary and the pay of 16 top deputies will save $100,000 through 2013, officials estimate. Health care contributions of 15 to 25 percent from those same people will save roughly another $83,000 over the same period.
While the measures -- as well one that reassigns executive-office cars to social service workers -- barely dent the $557-million deficit projection, Bellone said they're designed to "lead by example." They've already prompted Democratic lawmakers to propose making all 430 nonunion employees, including department heads, also pay into their health care.
"I'm hopeful it will send out a message that this sacrifice starts at the top," said the legislature's presiding officer, William Lindsay (D-Holbrook).
Should all labor unions agree to pay up to 25 percent of their health care costs, officials estimate annual savings of $26 million.
But for now, the new leader of the county's largest union is focused on the 400-plus layoffs scheduled for June 30.
"Why is the first option letting people go? I think there's a lot of other solutions we can come up with," said Dan Farrell, who on July 1 will become president of Suffolk's 6,500-member Association of Municipal Employees. "These cuts are just devastating."
The layoffs "should make us more determined than ever to make the sacrifices necessary for Suffolk County to live within its means, and avoid even more difficult cuts in the future," Bellone told the crowd.
In the Republican response, Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said the county hasn't considered all alternatives to potentially service-crippling layoffs. He suggested extending early retirement plans to non-police bargaining units and considering selling and leasing back county buildings.
"The county executive is making every effort to address the huge hole we face," he said, "but there are certain additional things we have to look at."
Bellone's address, however, wasn't all bad news. He noted $162 million in already-announced deficit-cutting measures; credited improved state relations for legislation to bring in more traffic-ticket revenue; and said a police department shakeup has put increased emphasis on analysis of crime patterns.
To close, Bellone led an ovation for volunteer firefighters who put out last week's Manorville blazes, and became emotional recalling the March birth of his son, Michael.
"Although most of you in Suffolk County are still getting to know me," he said, "what you should know is this: What motivates me each and every day is what we can do to build a better future for all our families."