Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Friday unveiled a $2.77 billion budget for 2013 that would raise property taxes for county police by 2.6 percent and includes revenue for a sale-lease back of the H. Lee Dennison Building to close a $70 million budget hole.
Bellone's proposal would raise police taxes for the average homeowner in Suffolk's five western towns by $27.70, compared to $1,053 they now pay. But the spending plan would keep the general fund tax rate flat at $89.22 and result in no further layoffs.
"This cleans up the mess we inherited, but moving forward there are still big challenges ahead -- the environment is not getting better," Bellone said in an interview.
In his budget message, Bellone, a Democrat, urged county lawmakers to "return this budget to me intact," warning that "deviating from the financially responsible path we have charted offers severe consequences."
But Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) criticized the tax increase and said he will "be looking for a way to reduce or eliminate it completely. I'll be looking carefully at the budget for gimmickry after what I believe was a greatly exaggerated deficit projection. I want to make sure the budget proposed to us is sound and manageable."
Bellone, who inherited a $60 million deficit upon taking office in January, had faced estimates of a 2011-13 budget shortfall of $420 million to as much as $530 million.
Bellone called the Dennison Building deal "the best alternative available" to address the ongoing shortfall.
Suffolk would seek state legislation to allow the county's Judicial Facilities Agency to borrow to buy Dennison, providing the county with $70 million upfront. The county then would make lease payments to cover the borrowing costs.
However, Bellone labeled the proposal "an option of last resort."
In an effort to find alternatives to the sale-lease back, Bellone's budget includes $140,000 to pay consultants to explore turning over operation of the county's 22 sewer districts to the Suffolk Water Authority. Bellone also instructs his staff to consider an overhaul of the county bus system. Options would include privatization of operations, as Nassau has done.
The budget would increase police district property taxes by a total of $12.4 million. Bellone aides say the property tax increase would help fund a class of 75 new officers next year.
Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) noted that he backed a police tax increase last year but no police class was hired.
"There's a bit of smoke and mirrors going on," said Romaine. "Will a new class actually be hired now?"
Under the budget, county property taxes, including for police, would make up 11.45 percent of the average homeowner's overall property tax bill.Legis. Jay Schniederman (I-Montauk) expressed concern about possible privatization of bus service.
"I'm very leery about it," he said. "In Nassau, they [private operators] have the ability to raise fares and eliminate routes, but our geography has some very rural areas, which could strand a lot of people."
Bellone's budget also disclosed a new fiscal issue -- that an arbitrator earlier this month awarded a correction officers contract for 2008 through 2010 that will force the county to come up with $35.6 million. Bellone, in his budget, proposes paying for the award with a five-year bond, allowed by law. Bellone's budget also proposes $1 million in new and higher health department fees, and $3.4 million from a new administrative fee of $30 for red light camera tickets and $50 fee for other moving violations.
The 2013 spending plan also calls for turning over the four county health centers -- Riverhead and Tri-County in Wyandanch and two East End satellite clinics -- to Hudson River Health Care next year. Bellone aides could not say whether county employees who now staff the clinics would remain because negotiations with Hudson are ongoing.
Suffolk's proposed 2013 operating budget
Total: $2.77 billion
Property taxes: 2.6 percent increase for the county police district -- a $27.70 increase for the average homeowner. Residents of Brookhaven, Huntington, Smithtown, Islip and Babylon pay police district taxes. County general tax for the average homeowner remains unchanged at $89.22.
Sales taxes: Estimated growth 3.85 percent in 2012, and 3.75 percent in 2013.
County real estate: Revenue from a $70 million sale-lease back deal for the H. Lee Dennison county building. Alternatives include a Suffolk Water Authority takeover of county sewer districts or an overhaul of the county bus system.
New fees: $3.4 million from a new $30 administrative fee for red light camera tickets, and a $50 administrative fee for other moving violations. $1 million in new or higher health department fees.
Source: Suffolk County Executive