Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Republican James O'Connor traded jabs in their first and only televised debate Thursday night, attacking each other for failing to detail how they will close the county's $100 million to $200 million structural budget deficit over the next four years.
Both hammered each other repeatedly on fiscal issues that dominated the 30-minute News 12 Long Island debate.
"Suffolk County has gone off a fiscal cliff," said O'Connor, accusing the county executive of using "sleight of hand" with "grandiose plans like bike paths that go nowhere," to distract voters from the "heart of the issue": costly police contracts.
"If Mr. Bellone fails to tell you what he would do about the fiscal crisis, he does not deserve to re-elected," said O'Connor.
Bellone countered that he has taken numerous steps to reform government after inheriting a $500 million budget hole and a $200 million structural deficit -- the difference between recurring revenue and expenses. He said he battled O'Connor "allies" who wanted to "keep the status quo" and avoid cutting 1,100 workers, closing the Foley nursing home and saving $300 million by halting new jail construction.
"If a politician is not going to tell you how he is going to reform government, there is no magic bullet," Bellone said. He said O'Connor, a former North Hempstead Town Board member who now lives in Great River, has offered no detailed plan other than backing creation of a fiscal control board to control costs.
"A fiscal control board is nothing but a crutch for politicians who don't want to make tough choices," Bellone said.
O'Connor attacked Bellone on the size of police union contracts that he says will cost county residents $400 million and already have caused taxes to rise by $45 million.
O'Connor also said the county should also return less costly deputy sheriffs to highway patrols so county police can boost law enforcement in local neighborhoods.
Bellone acknowledged that police costs are high. But he said the problem was created by decades of mandated arbitration awards before he took office. He said he negotiated police union contracts with concessions that allow the county to hire new officers at a lower cost who will pay a share of their health insurance.
Both men agreed that the county needs to spur the local economy.
Bellone said Suffolk has to center future development in downtowns to reduce reliance on cars and attract a labor pool of talented young people to lure new business here. Bellone said the county is moving toward those goals with plans for projects including the Ronkonkoma Hub and a new airport terminal at Long Island MacArthur Airport.
O'Connor said that the county's primary problem in attracting business is that taxes and the cost of living are too high. Without fixing the structural deficit, the county cannot afford needed improvements to roads and other public projects, he said.
"If we do not put out fiscal house in order you can't improve your infrastructure," said O'Connor.