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Bellone's big hurdle ahead: 2013 budget

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Bethpage. (June

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Bethpage. (June 1, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

What comes next could make Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's first six months in office look easy.

The smoke has barely cleared from the July 1 layoff of more than 230 workers, a contentious process that aimed simply to keep a huge multiyear budget hole from growing. But Bellone already has shifted focus to an even-tougher slog -- the 2013 budget, when the remaining deficit must be filled.

Next year's spending plan, due in September, will be the Babylon Democrat's first full county operating budget. Without a surprise stream of new revenue, or significant union concessions, cuts will be deep, said administration officials.

"We're at the point where the only decisions in front of us are very difficult ones," Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said last week.

Schneider and some county lawmakers cite the possibility of sale or closure of the county nursing home in Yaphank. That would end the county's $10 million annual subsidy.

Also possible is the shedding of hundreds more employees, should all bargaining units resist making the health care contributions that would save Suffolk $32 million a year, according to Bellone's estimates.

New deficit estimate

The administration originally pegged the deficit, from 2011 through 2013, at $530 million. Last week, though, it revised its estimate of the remaining shortfall to about $300 million.

Officials said sales tax receipts have come in higher -- and energy costs lower -- than the $530-million projection anticipated. They also have applied future savings from previously announced deficit-cutting measures such as an employee retirement incentive and borrowing from the state comptroller's office to spread out a $66 million spike in next year's pension tab.

But Republican lawmakers, many of whom called the initial deficit figure inflated, said they still haven't seen enough specific proposals from Bellone.

"I'm looking for mergers of departments, consolidations of functions and terminations of leases to start," said Legislative Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset). "I think even some of the majority members are become increasingly concerned by what they're seeing, or the lack of what they're seeing, from across the street."

Kennedy suggested some Democrats may join Republicans to propose an alternative 2013 budget. But Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne R. Horsley (D-Babylon) said the majority is continuing to work with Bellone on deficit-cutting measures expected in the 2013 budget.

'The 800-pound gorilla'

Horsley said millions of dollars already applied to the deficit through the anticipated sale of surplus Yaphank land, phased opening of the new county jail and adding red light cameras illustrate progress.

"But the 800-pound gorilla is what comes out of negotiations with the unions," Horsley acknowledged. "That's where the numbers will be substantial."

Bellone wants members of all public employee unions to start paying into their health care, as nonunion workers will start for the first time in November. That could save Suffolk $32 million a year.

Schneider said the administration has had "productive conversations with labor," about the issue. But Dan Farrell, the new president of Suffolk's largest union, the Association of Municipal Employees, said, "We've already . . . cut back on our health plan. We've done a lot to help out the county, but health benefits are something our members treasure, and probably the main reason they took the job. So it's going to be difficult."

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who wants employee health care contributions, said Bellone also should push hard to sell the nursing home, transfer more county health centers to a private operator and lobby the state for more mandate relief -- since additional layoffs may not win approval.

He's also eager to see the recommendations from Bellone's new "performance management team," which has promised $16 million in yet-unspecified efficiency measures"We can put our government back on track without additional layoffs," said Cilmi, who like other GOP members opposes new layoffs, and will forward employee cost-saving alternatives to Bellone. "But there needs to be more of a cooperative spirit between the executive and legislature."

But Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-Babylon), who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee, said "union negotiations are going to dictate just how much pain there needs to be. "Those are big numbers the county executive is seeking," he said, "and if we're not successful [with union concessions], decisions are going to be much more traumatic."

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