Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's proposed budget would end a...

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's proposed budget would end a tobacco cessation program. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Suffolk lawmakers criticized a cut proposed in Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s budget to end a tobacco cessation program, saying it could lead to higher smoking rates and health care costs.

The budget eliminates the 15 positions in the county’s Office of Public Health and moves the jobs to other departments. Programs run by the county in high schools to prevent tobacco use, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and bullying would continue, as would enforcement of tobacco laws, county spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said.

The tobacco cessation program, which would end, has served 404 new participants this year. That’s down from 862 in 2015 and 915 in 2014 as the county offered fewer sessions because of a staff member who has been on medical leave, county officials said.

Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) said cutting programs that prevent disease would lead to higher costs as electronic cigarettes become more popular.

“It’s a very scary prospect given the impacts of smoking over the last 50 years and what a devastating toll it has taken on our economy and the cost of medical care,” said Spencer, a medical doctor and chair of the county’s health committee.

Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), said she also opposed the cut. “Those programs should not be eliminated. They will ultimately save money and ultimately save lives,” she said.

Baird-Streeter said the county “is exercising tight controls on spending.”

While the program has served more than 18,000 residents since 2000, participation is going down. “We have continued to see a decrease in participants since the program’s inception,” she said.

The smoking cessation program was initially funded in 2000 as part of a settlement with tobacco companies, but previous administrations have used that funding stream to plug past budget holes.

Bellone released his $2.96 billion budget for 2017 on Friday, calling it “tight but fair.” It contains no layoffs. It also includes a nearly 4 percent increase in property taxes to pay for police, borrowing $60 million over two years to pay for police exit pay and a new $300 fee on mortgages.

Bellone said last week that the county had to evaluate all programs not mandated by state or federal authorities. The county has been hurt by rising personnel costs and stagnant sales tax growth, which has come in far below what the county projected.

County lawmakers will now review the budget in closed-door workshops and vote on it in November.

Anker said she would fight to preserve the tobacco cessation program.

Republican lawmakers have complained the budget relies too much on one-time revenue generators, including borrowing for pension costs and police retirement pay, and higher fees.

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