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Bellone backs off two funding cut proposals

County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed a resolution

County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed a resolution to force Suffolk's 10 towns to pay $3.4 million in annual tuition costs for local bachelor and graduate degree students who attend Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. (April 5, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Bowing to pressure, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has backed off two of his initial proposals to help close a $550 million budget gap.

Bellone aides said Tuesday that they won't defund county tobacco education programs, including a popular smoking cessation group, and will phase out -- instead of immediately axing -- a wage subsidy for contracted nonprofits.

The two cuts were to contribute about $3 million in savings through 2013, part of a larger "phase one" plan to slice the three-year deficit projection by $162 million. But health and social services advocates argued the impact from killing tobacco education and abandoning the living wage subsidy for child care providers would outstrip any short-term financial relief.

"I can assure you this pays for itself, it has to," said Roger McCaffrey, 52, of Mastic Beach, who credits the "Learn to Be Tobacco Free" program with helping him kick a 30-year smoking habit. "With the health costs associated with smoking, the county will probably end up saving money."

Tobacco education was budgeted at $2.1 million for this year and next. Living wage subsidies were to cost $1 million over the same period, but will be cut to $400,000 before ending in 2014.

Katie Roche, who runs the Rainbow Chimes early education school in Huntington, told lawmakers that losing the subsidy, coupled with other cost increases, could put nonprofits like hers out of business.

"The legislature needs to understand that this is only one part of the perfect storm to overtake child care providers," she said.

Minus the restored programs, the budget and finance committee Tuesday approved a bill authorizing $103 million in Bellone's initial deficit-reduction measures. Measures sent to the full legislature include borrowing $66 million from the state to spread out next year's pension tab increase, raising $6 million by charging insurers for medical helicopter use and axing the $1.1 million "HealthSmart" drug and obesity classroom education program.

"We are just doing unprecedented cuts in services throughout the county as result of this fiscal crisis, but we have to draw the line for some things," said Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a physician who lobbied Bellone to save the tobacco education program.

The committee action came after Comptroller Joseph Sawicki gave lawmakers yet another bit of sobering financial news. Last week, for the first time in two decades, Suffolk sold revenue-anticipation notes as a means of making payroll.

Though the county received a low interest rate on the $85 million it borrowed, the underwriter it hired to market the notes had to assume the last $25 million itself, after 11 other financial institutions turned them down, Sawicki said.

Suffolk must pay the total loan back by March, and Sawicki said it's likely officials will again seek to sell revenue-anticipation notes.

"It's needed," he said, "until we get ourselves out of this hole."

Softening the blow

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone altered plans to immediately cut two programs that would save about $3 million through 2013.

SAFE FOR NOW

Tobacco education: Program includes smoking cessation group. Its elimination would have saved $2.1 million over two years.

PHASED OUT

Living wage subsidies: Subsidy for child care providers, which cost $1 million over two years, would be reduced to $400,000 before ending in 2014.

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