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Suffolk advised to delay college projects

Students make their way across the campus of

Students make their way across the campus of Suffolk County Community College in Selden. (April 12, 2011) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Suffolk County should put off until at least 2014 several key community college building projects because of ongoing fiscal woes and the phasing out of tobacco funding, which has kept debt payments down, legislative budget analysts said.

The 390-page report by the Office of Budget Review comes after County Executive Steve Bellone last month proposed trimming the $16.75 million health and sports complex planned for Suffolk County Community College's eastern campus in Riverhead as well as a $3.2 million renovation of Kreiling Hall on the Selden campus. However, lawmakers in the past repeatedly restored funding for college projects that former County Executive Steve Levy tried to cut.

"Given the difficulties facing the county," the report states, "we recommend that for the most part additional funding of college projects be delayed until 2014 at the earliest."

The analysts' recommendations are a middle ground that keeps the projects in the three-year capital program so the college can qualify for state aid, which pays half the cost, but permits the county to put off construction.

"We have to enhance our facilities to meet the needs of our students," SCCC president Shaun McKay told lawmakers at a hearing last week. "Otherwise, they will leave."

Budget analysts said $24 million in higher debt payments will exacerbate Suffolk's financial problems next year. That's because revenue from selling rights to tobacco settlement funds -- which has gone to reduce county debt payments -- diminishes greatly in 2013. The analysts said the impact in 2014 will be more severe -- another $34 million.

Although Bellone's deficit panel included the $24 million as part of the $530 million 2011-13 shortfall estimate, analysts said the $34 million in 2014 "makes a bad situation worse."

Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon) said at last week's hearing that he wants to support restoring the college's construction projects, and asked McKay to rank them in case not all can be funded. McKay declined to assign priorities.

Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader, said he has asked for a college review to determine whether a delay would jeopardize state aid.

Mary Lou Araneo, a college vice president, said money already has been allocated for planning, and analysts say design contracts are about to be awarded. "We're encouraged by [the] budget review's support because it keeps us connected to the state five-year capital plan," in which decisions are made for funding projects.

"It strikes me as a reasonable compromise," said Jon Schneider, deputy county executive. "It recognizes the immediate fiscal situation while preserving the option to move forward."

With Paul LaRocco

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