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Halpin recalls Suffolk fiscal woes of 1988

PATRICK HALPIN SUFFOLK - 1987-1991 Suffolk County Executive

PATRICK HALPIN

SUFFOLK - 1987-1991

Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin, left, sits with Sen. Patrick Moynihan during a campaign stop. (Oct. 21, 1988) Credit: Newsday / John Keating

The kinds of fiscal woes now facing Suffolk are familiar to former County Executive Patrick Halpin.

As Halpin, a single-term Democrat, reminded a crowd of real estate brokers Thursday, he took office in 1988, just months after the Black Monday stock market crash -- and just as defense-spending cuts caused Grumman Aerospace to shed some of its 23,000 jobs.

"That was a tough time, and we had to manage through it," said Halpin, moderating a lawmaker discussion before the Commercial Industrial Brokers Society in Melville. "But frankly, these times are as difficult as any government has faced."

Suffolk's $530-million deficit projection through 2013 framed the event with Democratic legislators Wayne Horsley (Babylon) and Steve Stern (Dix Hills), and Republicans John Kennedy (Nesconset) and Ed Romaine (Center Moriches).

Much talk centered on 302 county layoffs to take effect June 30, with lawmakers repeating points they've often made: Republicans say many grant-funded jobs could still be saved, while Democrats said the current size of the workforce simply isn't sustainable.

"All the people in this room will be hurt," Romaine said, referring to cuts that could impact businesses' wastewater-permit requests. "Good luck trying to process construction permits in this county."

Stern noted the bigger picture: ballooning state pension and Medicaid obligations are outpacing sales tax and property tax growth to the point that 302 layoffs don't even start to solve the problem.

He said it was time to consider things lawmakers long avoided, including selling the county nursing home and yielding management of its health centers to a private company.

"Everything else is trying to nibble around the edges," Stern said. "These are the kinds of real, fundamental changes we need to look at going forward."

Halpin said he suggested selling the nursing home 21 years ago. But, he added, one of the biggest potential cost-savers is not in county legislators' hands.

"Let's start with creating one county school district," he said.

When it came to economic development, Kennedy said the legislature's vote this week to fund a sewer plant for the Ronkonkoma Hub project shows its commitment. Horsley seized on the point to show that -- despite partisan spats over layoffs -- the legislature was fully committed to the same long-term solutions.

"Cut through all the noise and the raising of voices," he said, "and we agree on sewers, transit hub growth and economic development."

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