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Editorial: Bellone prepares for fiscal reckoning

Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone at a meeting

Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone at a meeting in Riverhead on April 30, 2014. Credit: Randee Daddona

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says he still has specific ideas for saving money and will introduce them soon. But his ideas might make some county legislators, unions and voters furious. That's why he made a very public call in July for those lawmakers to pipe up with their plans to get the county's revenue and budget to match up.

So far, legislators have been pretty quiet.

Suffolk faces a $170.3-million deficit through 2015. Bellone has done some drastic but wise things to save money, including shuttering the county nursing home, cutting payroll and privatizing some county clinics. He's also made less wise moves, like borrowing from water-quality funds and basically mortgaging the county's largest office building.

Credit rating agencies are nervous. The one-shot revenue raisers are shot. And some of Bellone's cost-cutters haven't worked out.

For the second year in a row, $11 million of the savings the county unions guaranteed in 2012 in return for contract extensions has not been realized. County officials say the unions have agreed to produce $17 million in savings each year for a decade, but only $6 million of that, from federal subsidies, has come through. The plan to realize the rest of the savings, on prescription drugs, has been a disaster.

Under the contract, the county's method of squeezing it out of the unions involves presenting the case to an arbitrator . . . in 2015. That's because the contracts approved by Bellone and the legislators were -- while seemingly reasonable for Suffolk on the obvious issues -- very advantageous to the unions in the tricky details. Even if the county gets the money out of the unions, it won't help the cash crunch.

So now it's up to Bellone to unveil plans to cut costs. They'll be unpopular, but the costly union contracts must be paid. As sales tax revenues fall short and deficits mount, the only alternatives are draconian.