Suffolk County would hike police district taxes by nearly 4 percent, institute a new $300 mortgage fee and borrow up to $30 million for police retirement costs under a proposed 2017 budget released Friday by County Executive Steve Bellone.
Describing his budget as “tight but fair,” Bellone said his proposal avoids layoffs and the steepest cuts to services as the county deals with stagnant sales tax growth and rising pension and health care costs.
The $2.96 billion budget is a 1.5 percent increase over the current year’s spending. While economic indicators like unemployment and household income have improved and the county’s workforce has shrunk by 1,300 employees since he took office, the county continues to face financial problems.
The budget cuts a public health nursing program, in which about a dozen nurses make home visits emphasizing preventive care, in order to save $1.5 million. It also ends the county’s smoking-cessation program, which would save $500,000.
General fund property taxes will not increase and the county would remain under the state-mandated tax cap.
Police district taxes would increase 3.86 percent to raise $20.2 million. That would cost $43 more for the average homeowner, who pays $1,164 a year for police service on the average house. The police district covers the five western towns of Babylon, Huntington, Smithtown, Islip and Brookhaven.
There is some good property tax news: Southwest Sewer District taxes, covering much of Islip and Babylon, will be cut for the second straight year because initial construction costs have been paid off. The approximately 30 percent reduction would lower average home sewer taxes by $140. The district has 75,850 homes.
The budget relies on a 3 percent growth in sales tax revenue for the rest of 2016 and 2 percent growth in 2017.
Sales tax revenue this year is down slightly compared to last year. The county has been overly optimistic in its sales tax projections in recent years, forcing Bellone to order departments to hold back spending midyear.
But Bellone said the estimate in his budget is “very conservative.” This year “is probably the bottoming out” for sales tax revenue, he said.
Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, GOP caucus leader, assailed Bellone’s tax forecast as being too optimistic. “There is no basis for estimating anything but a flat sales tax,” McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) added.
He called Bellone‘s budget a “wad of Swiss cheese” full of holes. “Nothing short of a complete redesign of county government is going to balance this budget.”
In particular, he wants to review spending in the Planning and Economic Development Department, which he said “seems to be untouchable.”
“It’s a tough budget,” said Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville). He said the legislature, which was sent the budget on Friday, will “put our own imprint on it.”
He said he wants to revive the idea of having the Suffolk Water Authority take over operation of county sewers, saying the move “could save millions.”
Like in past years, the county continues to rely on one-shot budget moves.
The county will ask state lawmakers for authority to borrow $60 million over 2017 and 2018 to pay police retirement costs for unused vacation and sick time. The county projects 240 officers will leave over the next two years. It also budgets for a new police class of 65 to start in the fall of 2017.
In addition, the budget proposes borrowing $34 million for the county’s pension costs.
To balance this year’s books, the county will also increase borrowing from a sewer stabilization fund. Borrowing increased $60 million more than budgeted, to $88.2 million.
The budget also institutes new fees and hikes others, though Bellone said those would be at or below what is charged by Nassau County.
Bellone said the $300 mortgage fee will raise $33 million, affecting 113,000 new or refinanced mortgages in Suffolk each year. A tax map verification fee would increase $25, raising $4 million a year.
A county administrative fee on moving violation traffic tickets would increase from $30 to $60, generating $5.5 million. The fee on red light cameras would not increase.
The county will also charge nonprofits it contracts with for services a 1 percent surcharge for administrative fees, which will bring in an estimated $1 million.
Gregory also said he has concerns about Bellone’s plan to drop public nursing and charge a 1 percent fee to county contract agencies “who already work on a small margin.”
“I don’t want to discourage those who are willing to take on functions we don’t want to do or can’t do.” he said.
The budget was delivered Friday evening to Suffolk lawmakers, who will have the opportunity to adjust the budget.
Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the budget relies too much on borrowing. He called for a fiscal control board, similar to the body overseeing Nassau finances, which would have the authority to freeze wages, including law enforcement pay raises negotiated by Bellone and approved by lawmakers.
“He’s borrowing and putting the county deeper in debt,” Trotta said.
Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said the budget relies on more borrowing, fees and unrealistic sales tax projections. “This proposed budget is more of the same from an administration which clearly doesn’t appreciate the financial struggles of our residents,” he said.
Bellone said additional cuts could come in 2017, though he declined to detail them. Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the additional cuts could be triggered by sales taxes coming in below projections.