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Editorial: Suffolk shouldn't defer layoffs

The Suffolk County Legislature hears a report on

The Suffolk County Legislature hears a report on the county's deficit in a meeting at at the William H. Rogers Building in Hauppauge. (March 6, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

The layoff options facing the Suffolk County Legislature on Tuesday are grim. The least horrible is to muster 12 votes to approve the revised list of roughly 400 positions to be eliminated that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and his staff have been toiling over.

Worse: If they can't -- or won't -- put together the 12 votes, the layoff list thrown together by former County Executive Steve Levy would take effect. Worse still: If they postpone action until some later date, the pain would be more severe when that day of reckoning arrives. And that delay could further damage the county's fiscal situation and make it very difficult later to repay the short-term notes it's about to float in order to meet payroll. The county needs to borrow up to $90 million through these notes, until it receives the state and federal aid that it expects.

This whole dance of fiscal doom began when Levy proposed his budget last September. He included 710 layoffs, as a not-so-subtle prod to get the public employee unions to make concessions. In adopting the budget, the legislature accepted only 88 layoffs, and kicked the can down the road as to the rest: funding hundreds of positions only through the first six months of the year. That left it to Bellone to figure out what to do about the layoffs.

The game-changer since the budget's passage was a report from a committee of fiscal experts the new county executive appointed. They estimated the total deficit at $530 million through 2013. Some legislators doubted that number, but last week, County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki announced that the county closed the 2011 fiscal year with a $60.5 million deficit -- a lot worse than the $33 million Bellone's committee estimated. So the situation really is dire, and failure to act is not an option.

Individual legislators have problems with various aspects of the list, but Bellone can't accommodate them all. He has been open to persuasion on some matters, such as the forceful arguments by Department of Social Services Commissioner Greg Blass, who has been saying that the 146 layoffs scheduled for his department would sink it.

The agency is caught in a perfect storm of fast-rising need for its services, recent erosion of staff and state-federal legal deadlines for much of its work. It's not meeting those deadlines on food stamps and Medicaid applications, and it faces a losing legal battle in court over that failure. So Blass pushed back hard, offering a non-layoff plan to save about the same amount of money. Bellone's staff still felt it needed layoffs, but did agree with Blass that the county gets state and federal reimbursement for many of the employees on the list. In response, Bellone reduced the social-services layoffs to a still-evolving much smaller number, to preserve the department's core functions.

The bottom line is that the legislature has no rational alternative but to gulp hard and approve the revised list Tuesday, so that the layoff letters can go out by the end of the month. It's not pretty, but it's less ugly than what Levy proposed. It will hurt, but it won't be the only pain the county feels until Bellone and the legislature figure out how to balance the budget over the long haul and to convince bond-rating agencies that Suffolk really is on the road to recovery.