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Suffolk shortfall could hit $170 million in 2015

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Jan. 23,

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Jan. 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Suffolk County faces a 2015 fiscal shortfall of $170.3 million if the county does not continue to borrow to pay its $78.6 million pension bill from the state, according to a joint county executive and legislative analysis.

But the budget analysts said Tuesday that Suffolk is in better shape than a year ago, when officials projected a 2014 budget hole nearly twice as large: $337 million. They said the 2015 budget gap will be $91.7 million, if the county continues to borrow from the state for its pension tab.

"The good news is that we're down," said Robert Lipp, director of the legislature's office of budget review. "The bad news is we still have a way to go."

The latest projections came to light at the county legislature's budget committee only weeks after preliminary audit figures showed that the county ended 2013 with a $33.1 million surplus. Legislative and administration experts forecast Tuesday that the county's $2.26 billion budget for 2014 will essentially break even.

"We're not declaring victory, but it's better than going in the other direction," said Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), the committee chairman. He said he expects county officials to "make the tough decisions" in coming months to reduce the fiscal gap.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) questioned even the surplus numbers because "we're borrowing so much to pay our bills."

Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader, warned that Suffolk has few one-shots left to tap. "We've taken the assets that have some value and cut them loose," he said.

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state monitoring board in control of the county's finances, projects that Nassau will run a $95 million deficit in 2015, even with planned new revenue from speed cameras in school zones and a new gaming facility with 1,000 video slot machines.

Since 2011, Suffolk has borrowed $215 million from the state to pay for spiking pension costs due to losses caused by the Wall Street meltdown. Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he would like the county to stop pension borrowing if possible. "It's an open question," he said. "In a general sense, I prefer we not amortize the cost. I just don't know if we can do it next year."

Steve Bellone spokesman Justin Meyers said the county executive wants to continue amortizing pension costs next year.

Beyond the pension costs, Lipp said Suffolk in 2015 will face $35.7 million for higher salary costs in the general fund and police district, $17 million in higher debt service costs, $15.9 million for the shuttered county nursing home and $5.6 million in higher health insurance expenses.

The 2015 budget forecast included a $32.8 million reduction in revenues from the sewer assessment stabilization reserve fund being paid this year. It also included a loss of $15 million in operating revenues from county health centers being taken over by Hudson River HealthCare, though the county will also experience other savings from the move.

Lipp said their 2014 forecast also eliminates the $4 million in revenue expected from a 1000 machine video lottery terminal casino which was supposed to open this fall, and projects only $5 million in 2015.

Legislative analysts also expect $18.4 million shortfall in 2014 sales tax collections. They now estimate 2.1 percent growth this year instead of 3 percent, but forecast a 5 percent jump in 2015.

Dan Farrell, president of the Association of Municipal Employees, said Suffolk could ease its fiscal problems by spreading the tax burden fairly over everyone instead of imposing selective new fines and fees.

"We have already paid with layoffs and our contract," he said, "But I'm concerned. There needs to be more tax revenue. You have to pay one way or the other." With Robert Brodsky

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