Suffolk's deficit-cutting plan gets pared

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Bethpage. (June

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Bethpage. (June 1, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

One by one, components of a deficit-cutting plan that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced nearly three months ago have been abandoned, weakened or delayed.

Last week, the county legislature fell one vote short of approving a fare hike for Suffolk's disabled minibus riders. Bellone was banking on nearly $1 million in new revenue from the measure through 2013; now, if proposed again and approved this fall, lawmakers say it may only generate half that amount.

The fare hike's demise came shortly after Bellone, under pressure from community leaders, dropped efforts to impose a surcharge on Fire Island ferry tickets (which was to bring in $700,000), cut tobacco-education programs ($2.2 million in lost savings) and ax a wage-subsidy for nonprofits (it will now be phased out over two years, for savings of about $600,000 compared with the $1 million that had been planned).

Bigger-ticket items in Bellone's $162 million plan, rolled out on April 2 to help plug a projected three-year budget gap of $530 million, also have come with concessions.

To gain state approval for a local traffic violations bureau -- allowing Suffolk to keep about $10 million a year in ticket proceeds that it now sends to Albany -- the county bowed to state lawmakers in delaying the bureau's launch by three months and giving up a planned $50 surcharge for many violations the office will process.

"We are slowly but surely picking apart and dismantling the budget mitigation plan," legislative Majority Leader DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) lamented last week, when the bus fare increase for the disabled was going down.

Bellone said he wasn't frustrated that portions of the plan have fallen through. His office noted other items not included in his initial package have helped make up for the losses.

They include: state approval of a taxi commission, estimated to bring Suffolk about $500,000 in licensing fees through 2013; $1 million in savings by moving water quality jobs to a dedicated account; $4.5 million in state aid for 2011 storm costs and a state grant to pay down debt on the county nursing home, saving $2.3 million a year.

"It's sometimes easy to get lost in the weeds here, but we have to keep perspective: we have a $300 million budget gap for next year alone," Bellone said in an interview. "If we lose something from our plan, that just means the savings have to come from somewhere else. There's no avoiding the pain."

Regardless of what comes from his remaining first-stage proposals -- including a planned $16 million in savings from government efficiency measures -- tough decisions lie ahead for Bellone as he crafts a 2013 budget. He wants county union members to pay into their health care, as nonunion workers will begin doing in November. Suffolk would save $32 million a year if all employees participate, officials say.

Bellone has said without such concessions, he may have to lay off hundreds more county workers, on top of the more than 230 that are to leave July 1.

Republican lawmakers are pushing a plan, potentially worth $50 million in one-time revenue, to sell and then lease back the county's H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.

Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said that with a projected budget hole of $148 million in 2012, he's concerned the initiative wasn't urgently considered.

"We've tweaked around the edges for $40 or $50 million?" he said. "That still leaves an awful lot of wood to throw."

"A lot of what we've seen so far has been nickel-and-diming," said Martin Cantor, director of the Long Island Center for Socio-Economic Policy in Melville, who backs the lease-back proposal.

But Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne R. Horsley (D-Babylon) said that "a lot of the deficit mitigation issues" will come out with the 2013 budget.

Meanwhile, Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Bellone has worked hard to replace deficit-cutting measures that haven't materialized.

"Suffolk County is broke, and we need a lot of little things to get us out of this hole," he said. "We're going down every avenue we can. One way or another, this county executive is committed to balancing the budget."

 

Status updates

 

In April, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone proposed $162 million in deficit-reduction measures in an initial attack on a budget gap expected to total $530 million by the end of 2013. Here’s how some of the initiatives have fared:

Abandoned or reduced:

Fire Island ferry surcharge: $700,000 lost revenue


Tobacco-education cuts: $2.2 million lost savings


Phasing-out, rather than ending, a non-profit: $400,000 lost savings


Raising disabled bus fares: $940,000 lost revenue


$50 surcharge for local moving violations: no estimate


Moving forward:

State borrowing to cover 2013 spike in Suffolk’s pension bill: $66.8 million savings


Creation of local traffic violations bureau: $10 million yearly revenue, after start-up costs


Additional red-light cameras: $7 million new revenue


Billing insurers for medical airlift: $6 million revenue


Ending “Health Smart” programs: $1.1 million savings


*Figures are estimates
Source: County Executive

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