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Suffolk legislators scramble to plug budget holes

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks with reporters

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks with reporters about the 2016 budget that he released on Friday, Sept 18, 2015 in Hauppauge. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk County lawmakers who are scrambling to prevent holes in next year's budget want to use a $14.4 million windfall in state tobacco settlement money and increase fees for mortgage filings by $10 million compared with County Executive Steve Bellone's 2016 budget proposal.

With the budget up for a final vote Wednesday and sales tax revenues falling short of projections, lawmakers also plan to delay $1 million in new vehicle purchases, make $10 million in controversial bus service cuts and reduce Bellone's $1 million cut to nonprofits by $200,000.

"This is one of the most challenging budgets we had to face," said Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville).

He said the county had "very limited options" given the state property tax cap and union contracts that preclude layoffs.

Bellone and lawmakers have been trying to balance the budget to make up for depressed sales tax revenue, and increased salary costs due largely to three police union contracts.

Bellone released his proposed budget for 2016 in September. While the total tax levy did not pierce the state's 2 percent tax cap, Bellone increased police district property taxes by 2.9 percent.

Nine of the 18 county lawmakers worked behind closed doors in meetings since late September to come up with budget changes that were released publicly at 5 p.m. Friday.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Monday that Bellone still was reviewing the legislative amendments and "will consider whether or not there needs to be any vetoes" after tomorrow's meeting.

The county executive's position and all 18 legislative seats are on the ballot Tuesday. Republican James O'Connor, an attorney from Great River, is challenging Bellone.

The legislature's budget amendments lower sales tax estimates for the remainder of 2015 and for 2016 by a total of $30 million. They project .63 percent growth in 2015, and a 3.74 percent increase in 2016 -- an "optimistic forecast," according to a report in October by the legislature's nonpartisan budget review office.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) noted the legislature's projections have been overly optimistic two years in a row.

"There are no high-paying jobs. People are struggling. It's unrealistic to expect sales tax will be going up 3.74 percent," Trotta said.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said the budget fails to cut spending, and piles on fees.

"I can't in good conscience support budget amendments that don't address the structural deficit in any substantive way and adds tens of millions of dollars in fees for our residents," Cilmi said.

Legis. Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) and Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), the two Republicans who worked on the budget changes, are co-sponsors of the amendments.

"It's a little like King Solomon. What do you do?" Muratore said. "Do you cut the baby in half?"

The legislature's budget proposes to fast-track some fee hikes proposed by Bellone so they take place on Dec. 1, rather than Jan. 1. That includes an increase in the motor vehicle registration fee in Suffolk of $20 for compact and mid-size cars and $40 for larger vehicles.

It also would increase the county cost for a tax map certification, from $150 proposed by Bellone to $200, compared with the current $60. The legislature's increase will raise $9.8 million.Bellone also proposed a $6.2 million cut to county bus service, plus a $4 million cut in the county's transportation for the disabled. While lawmakers had initially protested that the cuts would harm the county's neediest residents, they now say the state should make up the difference. Suffolk has argued the state shortchanges the county.

Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) has pushed back, calling the county's plan "highly inappropriate."

Suffolk receives about half what the state contributes to Nassau's bus system, but Nassau carries about four times as many riders.

The budget and amendments will be voted on Wednesday at noon at the William H. Rogers Legislative Building in Hauppauge.

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