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Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone moves to close $78M gap

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone looks on during

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone looks on during a news conference in Smithtown, Friday, May 13, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Tuesday said he would take tighter control of county spending — down to approving nearly all departmental purchases — to close an estimated $78 million shortfall in this year’s budget.

“This is austerity, extreme austerity,” Bellone, a Democrat, said in an interview.

Bellone issued a formal “notice of funding deficiency” to declare the projected budget gap and propose fixes such as having his budget office approve all purchases over $250, rather than $1,000 under current policy, and embargoing 10 percent of each county department’s unspent discretionary funds.

He blamed lagging sales tax receipts as a prime reason for the growing deficit.

Last month, officials lowered estimates for year-end sales tax growth to just 1.5 percent — after earlier forecasting 2.7 percent growth.

The county ended 2015 with a $39.4 million deficit, officials said, and projected a $38.4 million hole for 2016.

“You can’t address a problem if you’re not willing to own up and identify it, and the fact is we still have major financial difficulties that we have to deal with,” Bellone said.

To close the $78 million gap, the administration is banking on $20 million in savings from its embargo of discretionary spending, $15 million in revenue from the long-stalled sale of the former Foley nursing home to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital and $9 million in other real estate proceeds. The administration also would cut the budgets of programs it said are underutilized to save $7.5 million and eliminate unfilled county positions for $5 million in savings.

The deficit reduction plan includes $4.5 million in new savings or revenue that have yet to be determined.

Bellone has not filed a funding deficiency notice since 2012, his first year in office, when Suffolk faced an estimated three-year deficit of $530 million.

Bellone laid off union workers, backed “one-shot” borrowing measures such as a sale and lease-back of the county executive building in Hauppauge and moved to sell the Yaphank nursing home to a private operator. Opponents filed suit to block the sale, and Bellone closed the facility the following year.

Legislative Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said Bellone more recently has not acted with as much urgency. McCaffrey cited the administration’s continued hiring of political appointees and delayed hiring of police cadets who could have reduced overtime earned by higher-paid senior officers.

“There’s been a fiscal crisis going on for a very long time,” McCaffrey said. “I’m glad to see the county executive has finally realized.”

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said legislators would review options for further savings. He said the legislature already has proposed initiatives to hold vendors to contract performance measures, cutting funding to those who don’t comply.

“We’ve made some tough choices together,” Gregory said. “We’re just going to have to make some more.”

Bellone said he was open to other proposals.

“If anyone has any ideas that aren’t going to be placing new burdens on taxpayers, I want to hear them,” he said. “There’s no ownership here.”

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