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Suffolk sees $152M budget gap, less sales tax growth

Aides to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy lowered their 2010 sales tax projection Tuesday and told lawmakers the county has a $152 million budget gap this year.

Levy officials said the revelations essentially killed the hope that there will be a second class of new police officers this year. Lawmakers had budgeted for 200 new cops in the 2010 budget, but the first class, planned for June, has 70.

Connie Corso, Levy's deputy county executive for budget and finance, and budget director Eric Naughton said Suffolk has about a $292.7 million shortfall in the $2.6 billion 2010 budget. Aides said Levy, however, has already closed $140 million of the gap by ordering county departments to cut 10 percent of their budgets, enforcing a strict hiring policy and collecting Federal Medical Assistance Program funds.

William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, said the county could save more money by hiring more police officers and offering early retirement to experienced officers who are paid about three times the starting police salary.

"We should be saving money by hiring new cops and encouraging the older ones to retire," Lindsay said.

But Corso dismissed the idea. "How can you hire people if you don't have any money?," she said.

Last fall, Levy proposed 5 percent sales tax growth for 2010 while the legislature proposed a 2.75 percent growth. The two sides agreed to forecast a 4 percent increase for the 2010 budget. Each percentage point of sales tax revenue is worth about $10 million to the county.

Along with sales tax, Naughton said the county now expects less revenue than it budgeted from property tax payments, state aid and red-light cameras. Suffolk will pay out $68 million in unbudgeted contractual salary settlements with union employees. They will also pay more in employee retirement contributions, health insurance, debt service and snow removal, he said.

Delivering bleak budget news in March has become a Levy tradition. He has warned of budget shortfalls in March during six of his seven years in office. Last year, Levy warned of a $119 million annual deficit and threatened to lay off 380 county employees if county unions didn't agree to a lag payroll and other concessions.

Naughton proposed several methods to raise funds or cut spending: selling the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility, which Levy first tried in 2008; making the county's health centers Federally Qualified Health Centers, which would make the county eligible for $7.5 million in annual federal money; buying the $22 million IRS building in Holtsville and civilianizing 50 Police Department positions.

Legis. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said lawmakers should consider tapping the county's $98 million tax stabilization reserve fund, which would require a property tax increase.

"I have no idea why we wouldn't use a rainy-day fund," Romaine said, "when it's raining all over the place."

Naughton said tapping the fund is "not part of our plan."

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