Suffolk leaders say they've sliced the county's gaping, multiyear deficit projection by $263 million in just five months, but some experts and lawmakers remain skeptical about the numbers.
County Executive Steve Bellone's office explained the stark change by saying revenue forecasts aren't as dire as first thought, personnel costs aren't ballooning as planned, and that banked-on -- but yet to materialize -- borrowing measures, program cuts and new fees have cleared most hurdles.
The administration last week, for the first time, detailed all of the factors it is citing to contend that Suffolk's estimated 2011-13 budget shortfall has dropped from a high of $563 million to $300 million.
"We're comfortable enough to move slightly off the most conservative projections," Bellone said, noting that legislative budget analysts originally suggested numbers closer to the adjustments. "But the fact is, the deficit is still massive."
In March, an independent fiscal panel pinned the deficit projection at $530 million; the figure later jumped by $33 million due to the 2011 deficit. The panel's estimate stemmed from its prediction that sales tax revenue would increase only 2.6 percent in 2012 and just 1.5 percent in 2013.
Based on receipts so far this year, Bellone is hoping for 4.9 percent growth in 2012, shaving $47 million from the budget hole, and 2.6 percent growth in 2013. The 2013 adjustment, along with revenues from a planned land sale and lower energy costs, should produce another $49 million, his office said.
Bellone, a first-term Democrat, also believes property tax payments will come in $10 million higher and that $13 million in personnel costs -- primarily for increased overtime -- assumed in the shortfall won't be needed.
The downsizing of the deficit estimate provided ammunition to GOP lawmakers, who were wary of the initial projection. "This shows the original numbers were inflated," said legislative Minority Leader John Kennedy (R-Nesconset).
But Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), budget committee chairman, said, "If the panel was going to be incorrect, you'd rather they go too high than too low."
Overall, the administration shaved $106 million off its deficit projection through improvements to the economy and another $31 million via labor cost adjustments.
The remaining $126 million comes from Bellone's initial "deficit-mitigation" plan: $67 million in state borrowing to spread out the spike in Suffolk's 2013 pension tab, $10 million anticipated from Suffolk processing its own traffic tickets and $7 million from more red-light cameras.
Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) questioned inclusion of measures that aren't final.
"They've totally abandoned the conservative estimates that their own task force came up with," Cilmi said. "That has to call into question the veracity of the estimates to begin with."
Richard Halverson, chief of the task force and a former assistant deputy director of New York City's financial control board, called Bellone's adjustments "reasonable" given 4 percent sales tax growth this year.
"There's some positive news, but it still leaves a big problem," Halverson said, referring to the lingering $300 million deficit estimate. "It's not certain the positive news is going to stick. They have a lot to do."
Bellone still must decide what to do with the county nursing home, which operates at a $10 million annual loss, and come up with a way to make up $32 million in savings should all Suffolk workers not agree to pay into their health care.
E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative think tank, supports Bellone's push for union concessions. But he disagrees with using a small sample to project healthier sales tax growth over two full budget years. Both Nassau and Suffolk rely heavily on sales tax revenue, and optimistic projections sometimes haven't panned out.
"The overall picture argues for caution," McMahon said.
But Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) said he was confident other initiatives, such as $16 million in yet-to-be-unveiled "government efficiency" measures, will come through. He noted that the recent early retirement of several hundred county workers will help.
"I think the panel made their projections assuming that government would be unable to make changes," Horsley said. "I think Suffolk has adapted."
SUFFOLK COUNTY DEFICIT
County Executive Steve Bellone says the following factors -- some based on projections or initiatives that have yet to occur -- were key to reducing the estimated 2011-13 budget gap from $563 million to about $300 million:
Increased property tax revenues: $10M
Increased sales tax revenues, 2012: $47M
Increased sales tax revenues, 2013; reduced energy costs and anticipated land sale: $49M
Total: $106 million
Restoration of positions funded with state and federal aid: $18M
Decreased overtime projections: $13M
Total: $31 million
Other key savings/revenues*:
Borrowing for 2013 pension increase: $67M
Withholding 10 percent of each county department's budget: $25M
Efficiency initiatives: $16M
New traffic violations bureau: $10M
Total: $126 million
Source: Suffolk County executive