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Editorial: A financial tale of two counties

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the county's budget at his office in the Dennision Buiding in Hauppauge. (Sept. 20, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

In the near-constant ruckus over the troubled state of Nassau County's finances and budget, Suffolk County's travails often get overlooked. But Suffolk has problems too.

The $2.76-billion budget proposal for 2014 released last week by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone provides a chance to compare the two counties' situations: Suffolk's books are a disaster, but they don't present the same history of ever-mounting debts and a future of seemingly unsolvable obstacles. Both counties appear on a new list of financially stressed municipalities released by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Based on 23 metrics, nine of them fiscal, Suffolk landed in the "highest stress" category and Nassau under "moderate stress." If you look at the budgets and debts, however, those ratings should be reversed.

Bellone presented a 2014 budget that could balance, almost, if a lot of things go right and a lot of debt gets pushed down the road.

Suffolk ran a $156-million deficit in 2012 and will spend about $100 million more than it collects in 2013. And these numbers were achieved after cutting about 1,000 employees and using one-time revenue, like the sale and lease-back of county assets. Bellone says the soonest the county can reach structural budget balance is 2016.

So how does Bellone want to make ends meet? First, and least complex, he'll raise the police district tax 2.34 percent, similar to what was done last year. But the next piece is a repeat of the move Bellone tried three months ago: asking the State Legislature for permission to borrow money under the auspices of the state dormitory authority. Bellone wants to borrow about $150 million this way over the next three years to cover current debt service, pushing repayments back 12 years. It was a bad idea three months ago because it twists the purpose of the dormitory authority, where too much backdoor borrowing already takes place without public scrutiny, and because if it works, other municipalities will go to Albany with their palms out. Beyond that, Suffolk won't get any political support without including Nassau. And if Suffolk tries to do it with Nassau, it's a circumvention of that county's fiscal control board, a very bad idea.

To make up for this new debt, Bellone says he'd cut borrowing for infrastructure by $10 million a year until this obligation is repaid, in about 15 years. But there's no way to require future officials to do the same.

Also not guaranteed in Bellone's budget are about $15 million more in revenue from red-light cameras and other tickets, $4 million from electronic slot machines projected to go into use next September, and a 4 percent increase in sales tax receipts in 2014. That new sales tax revenue is on top of 2013's 6 percent increase, in part from spending for Sandy recovery.

Bellone has things working in his favor that Nassau Executive Edward Mangano does not. Suffolk's debt is $1.4 billion, where Nassau's is more than $3 billion. Suffolk does not have a state control board that must approve all borrowing and most contracts. It does not rack up overwhelming expenses because of intractable assessment problems.

Ideally, Suffolk would pay its bills with real revenue. If it has to borrow to make up a shortfall, it can do so via normal bonding. The state shouldn't let the county push off its bills to the next generation. Kicking the can down the road is exactly what got Nassau to the level of trouble that Suffolk has, thus far, avoided.

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