Suffolk budget officials warned Tuesday that the county is facing a three-year, $186.3 million shortfall as it heads into preparations for the 2017 operating budget
Budget aides to County Executive Steve Bellone and legislative budget analysts disclosed the projected shortfalls in its annual presentation to the county legislature’s budget committee in Riverhead.
Budget officials say the county ended last year with $18.4 million deficit. They also projected a $38.4 million shortfall for 2016 and as much as $129.4 million next year.
However, budget officials also said their forecasts do not include the use of continued borrowing from the state pension fund or the county sewer tax stabilization fund because those are policy decisions that must be made by elected officials. The county could offset significant parts of the shortfall by borrowing as much as $34.2 million to ease pension payments and $38.2 million from the sewer fund.
Connie Corso, Bellone’s budget director, emphasized the administration has kept a tight rein on expenses and most problems come from issues beyond the county’s control, such as late state and federal aid payments and lagging sales tax. She also called on county lawmakers to lobby state lawmakers for legislation to use the MTA tax to increase county bus aid by $31 million, which she said would “almost wipe out” the deficit for 2016.
Robert Lipp, director of the office of budget review said the 2015 deficit of $18.4 million is made up largely of $14.5 million revenue coming in slower than expected and higher than expected police overtime costs and the delay in the sale of the Foley nursing home.
The projected $38.4 million shortfall in this year’s budget includes a $24.5 million increase in salaries, including the new police class, and a projected $9.5 million shortfall in sales tax collections as well as delays in implementing auto registration, alarm and tax maps fees.
Heading into 2016, budget analysts estimate a $39.1 million increase in salaries, and $8.2 million loss in tobacco settlement revenue to resolve a legal dispute.
While Bellone earlier this week called for increasing the size of next police class from 65 to 175 in part in hopes of reducing overtime costs, which last year totaled $45.3 million, budget officials do not include any overtime savings. Their estimate, however, does include funding for settlement of unresolved contract talks with several county unions, but the officials declined to say how much because bargaining is still ongoing.
Democratic Legis. Louis D’Amaro of North Babylon, budget committee chair, called the presentation “generally positive news,” noting “the shortfalls are decreasing from a few years ago when we were talking about a gap of half billion dollars.”
Despite progress, Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) warned, “We still have challenges ahead of us.”
However, Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) worried that he “doesn’t see the same kind of assertiveness” from Bellone in cutting the deficit as in his first term. “I don’t like seeing the $186 million figure,’ he said. “There should be a little less talk about the Suffolk County Marathon and more talk about closing the deficit in an aggressive way.