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Suffolk deficit could fall to $179M in '13

The Suffolk County Legislature seal in the lobby

The Suffolk County Legislature seal in the lobby of the legislature building in Hauppauge, seen on Aug. 14, 2012. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Legislative budget analysts predict that Suffolk's deficit could fall to $179 million heading into 2013, assuming success for big-ticket items such as employee health plan savings and sale of the county nursing home.

The legislature's Budget Review Office presented its findings Tuesday to a legislative committee, its first detailed deficit assessment since March. Back then, the office said Suffolk faced a 2011-13 budget gap of about $400 million.

That figure was overshadowed by the $530 million deficit projection -- also made in March -- by County Executive Steve Bellone's independent fiscal panel. In predicting a bigger hole, that panel assumed anemic growth in sales tax revenue and onerous overtime costs from summer layoffs.

Much has happened since. Bellone's staff recently adjusted its remaining shortfall estimate to about $300 million, citing improved sales tax receipts, unexpected overtime savings and anticipated revenues from new initiatives such as a local traffic violations bureau.

Skeptical of those adjustments, the legislature requested that its independent Budget Review Office weigh in. But the office said Tuesday that it only re-examined its own initial $400 million deficit projection -- not the one from Bellone's panel, or the administration's subsequent adjustments to it.

"I wouldn't begin to guess what's inside their heads," Robert Lipp, the Budget Review Office deputy director, said of the county executive's budget staff.

Lipp and Budget Review Office director Gail Vizzini carefully led lawmakers through their reasoning in lowering their $400 million deficit projection. To first get it down to $232 million, they cited primarily: $60.7 million in savings from Suffolk's plan to borrow from the state and spread the cost of its 2013 pension tab; $38.7 million in anticipated savings from labor union negotiations, and $32.8 million saved from the July layoffs of more than 200 county employees.

For their deficit projection to then fall to $179 million by 2013, Lipp and Vizzini made three main assumptions: that officials would approve a 2 percent police district tax hike next year; that they'll realize $17 million in savings that Bellone has promised from the county's employee health care plan; and that they'll complete the controversial, $23 million sale of the John J. Foley nursing home.

Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), chairman of the budget committee, said getting the Budget Review Office on the same page with Bellone's fiscal experts was crucial as the 2013 budget is crafted, and things such as further program or staffing cuts are considered.

"As we get it [the deficit figure] down, it becomes more important to get accuracy," he said. "We're making decisions that affect people's lives."

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the presentation reaffirms the importance of the administration's deficit-cutting initiatives. "To those who would say, 'Maybe we don't have to sell the nursing home,' " he said, "I think this report lays out that it's necessary to balance our budget without a massive tax hike or additional layoffs."

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