Suffolk County closed 2011 with a $33 million budget gap -- believed to be its first year-end deficit in 20 years, officials said Monday.

The findings come from County Executive Steve Bellone's panel to independently assess the depth of Suffolk's fiscal woes. While the panel will brief lawmakers Tuesday on projected budget holes for this year and next, aides to Bellone, a Democrat, said the revelation about last year was unexpected.

"We were told the budget was balanced," said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider. "What we're all recognizing now is that the fiscal condition of the county is worse than we imagined."

He declined to preview the 2012 and 2013 deficit estimate, but several lawmakers said they're preparing for it to be at least a combined $300 million. Their approved 2012 budget only funds more than 600 positions through June.

For 2011, Bellone's six-member panel found $20 million in revenue was budgeted from the still-pending sale of surplus Yaphank industrial land, and that sales tax revenue was overestimated by $7 million, Schneider said.

Former County Executive Steve Levy said the true blame for the deficit falls on the legislature, which blocked his efforts to close the John J. Foley skilled nursing center, but still spent its $28 million in projected savings.

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"That's almost the exact amount of the shortfall," Levy, a Republican, said Monday.

Levy called the land sale "a wash," noting revenue should be realized in 2012.

Majority Leader DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), last year's budget committee chairman, said the panel's findings were "troubling," but added that estimating sales tax is difficult. "We tried our best to make a responsible budget, but to be truthful, a lot of it is projections," he said

Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, responsible for preparing Suffolk's 2011 financial statement, said he couldn't confirm the Bellone panel's deficit estimate, noting that final numbers should be ready by April 1.

Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said the panel's preliminary findings make him wonder about the accuracy of Levy's budgets.

"I'm gravely concerned that information coming out now varies from the information that was always being told to the legislature, the rating agencies and investors," he said.

Levy said Bellone's panel has a motive beyond getting a handle on the budget crisis. "It's to shout doom and gloom," he said, "so when Bellone raises taxes, he can say, 'Oh, it wasn't my fault.' "

With Rick Brand