A Republican bill to set aside more money to help close Suffolk County's $250 million shortfall and the disclosure that County Executive Steve Bellone has socked away only a fraction of the 10 percent in savings he sought from departments have stirred heated debate in the county Legislature.
The GOP resolution, which would empower the county executive to hold back spending up to 15 percent of the 2013 operating budget, was tabled by the Democrat-dominated budget committee Tuesday, but drew bipartisan concerns about the need to close the gap.
Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) the bill's sponsor, said the Bellone administration has been slow to propose cost cuts, noting, "I haven't seen a plan" yet.
The concern was heightened when Robert Lipp, acting budget review director, told the committee that the county executive has so far put aside only about $10 million, or .6 percent, rather than the 10 percent in savings sought in the memo to all department heads earlier this year. Legislative budget analysts added that Bellone aides said they expect another $5 million in savings shortly.
Later, Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider called Kennedy's proposal "a hollow, meaningless gesture" that does nothing to close the shortfall. "We don't need percentages," he said. "What we need are specific ideas on what services people are willing to do without."
Schneider added that when the administration has put forward "tough choices," such as the $23 million sale of the county nursing home, Kennedy sued to block it.
At the committee meeting, Thomas Vaughan, a Bellone aide, said Kennedy's resolution went too far, putting aside as much as $150 million. "It would render the county inoperable," he said.
Under the county charter, the county executive is empowered to hold up to 10 percent of unextended appropriations or about $100 million.
Bellone and lawmakers a month ago created a bipartisan deficit reduction committee, but the group has met only once, and no other meeting has been set. Kennedy, a committee member, said Bellone has not put forward specific proposals; Schneider said neither has Kennedy.
Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), the minority leader, said Kennedy's bill is unrealistic because cuts that deep would require layoffs. "We've got to get real on the issue," he said. "And if that's what he's proposing, that's what he's proposing."
However, Horsley also acknowledged that quick action is needed. "Both sides have to become more aggressive," he said. "Time is fleeting and we have to get some ideas on the table."