Suffolk legislative Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory has unveiled a bipartisan plan to ease some cuts in County Executive Steve Bellone’s $2.9 billion 2017 budget, but expressed concern about a significant gap because police union and Albany officials oppose $60 million in borrowing for exit pay for retiring officers.
Gregory said he plans to put in a separate budget amendment to defer $26.5 million as a cushion should the state refuse Bellone’s proposal to permit bonding for retiring officers’ unused sick and vacation time over the next two years.
Noel DiGerolamo, president of the 1,700-member Police Benevolent Association, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said they strongly oppose the borrowing for an expense that has always been part of the annual operating budget.
“It is absolutely terrible public policy,” Flanagan said. “These issues should be resolved at the local level through collectively bargaining.” He said the State Legislature has been “extraordinarily helpful” to the county with its fiscal woes, but this proposal goes too far. “The taxpayers don’t want to hear it, smell it or taste it,” he said.
“I am opposed to the borrowing,” said DiGerolamo, adding the county should not be “bonding out into the future to pay for today’s operating costs.” He said the union is “always willing to explore options that would benefit the county and sustain the level of law enforcement needed in this county . . . If a municipality cannot make payroll, it does not benefit anybody.”
In “very preliminary” talks, Gregory said DiGerolamo indicated the union might be willing to make as much as $10 million in deferrals or concessions, and would work to seek cooperation of other county unions. However, Gregory added only the county executive has the power to negotiate with the union.
“We always remain open if people have ideas to save money,” said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider. “Our simple goal is to meet our obligation to our union members and the Suffolk County taxpayers.” However, he questioned whether the union might be seeking leverage to get concessions in return. “I kind of want to know what the catch is,” he said.
While the administration hasn’t fully reviewed the legislature’s proposals, Schneider added, “As long as a budget preserves what the [county] executive put in to protect public safety, reform government and promote economic development, we’d be supportive of it.”
The legislature’s nine-member budget working group proposes to restore funding for public health nurses and anti-smoking initiatives, along with partially rolling back income limit day care aid, which Bellone sought to set at the poverty level or below. It will allow a family of four that makes $30,375 annually to get day care, rather than only those who make than $24,300 or less.
It also axes the proposed 1 percent fee on nonprofits with county contracts, which would have cost them $1.2 million, and a $25 increase in the tax map certification fee, which would have brought in $4.1 million. The legislature’s plan calls for cutting $1.4 million of the $5 million in revenues Bellone budgeted for burglar alarm registration, though lawmakers are still working out details.
Overall, the legislative plan calls only for a $1.5 million increase to Bellone’s budget and a slight hike of .12 percent in the police district property tax for the five western Suffolk towns that Bellone originally sought. It will raise police taxes about $46 for the average homeowner to $1,209 and generate $500,000 in new revenue.
Gregory acknowledged the budget working committee had considered a 6 percent hike in police district taxes but it was rebuffed by the Bellone administration and later dropped.
The working group, said Gregory, also upped the estimate for 2016 revenues from sales tax from Bellone’s 1 percent growth to 1.16 percent, which will generate $4 million, and projected another $4.1 million in savings from a new request for proposals seeking economies in the employee health insurance plan. The working group also estimated $2 million in extra revenue from the vehicle registration surcharge.
The legislative plan also includes $2.4 million to plug a hole Bellone left in sheriff’s overtime and $3.7 million for mental health contracts that were underestimated. The plan also calls for adding three new auditors for the comptroller’s office that they expect will be funded by audit recoveries.
Because of the short time the lawmakers have to consider the budget, Gregory said he plans to name an ad hoc committee that will work into next year to do a deeper review of county spending and make recommendations to cut costs.
He also said he will propose a separate budget amendment to spend $200,000 to hire the legislature’s own Albany lobbyist to make the case for help in local sales tax enforcement. “We have to have our own footprint on state legislation,” he said.