County Executive Steve Bellone’s 2017 budget is due to the Suffolk County Legislature on Friday, and it’s unclear how he plans to balance it. Worse, it’s nearly impossible to see how he can match expenses with revenues in the long run, even if he comes up with more one-shot revenue sources and fancy schemes to get the county through the next year.
Suffolk’s revenue is flat, and its expenses are growing, particularly the cost of maintaining its highly paid police force. The result is a huge recurring annual budget gap. This year, the projected shortfall will be $140 million to $180 million.
Last week, Bellone met with legislative leaders to discuss potential fee increases and cuts in services, none of which sound like very good ideas. He has used some of these tricks before, and will use them again, such as borrowing to pay pension contributions and borrowing from a sewer stabilization fund.
But that money eventually must be repaid, and doing so years from now as expenses rise will become more difficult. Bellone says the long-term answer is building a county where people want to live, with high-paying jobs, and vibrant and growing retail businesses and real estate values. That’s true, but it’s also so far off and hard to attain that it has almost no bearing on today’s fiscal difficulties.
Bellone also says he wants to avoid piercing the property tax cap, but is proposing several increases on fees for things like red-light and traffic tickets, county vendors and nonprofit organizations, real estate paperwork and mortgages. These will be just as unpopular as tax hikes, but not as transparent.
The county spends about $730 million on policing annually. The police district property tax brings in only $520 million. Most Suffolk residents don’t question the cost of policing. Officers on the beat earned substantial salaries and benefits packages averaging more than $230,000 a year in value in 2015, up 40 percent since 2006.
Their unions have the right to mandatory arbitration when contracts are disputed — and the arbitration awards always seem to favor the police. Overtime runs out of control because officers get as many as 70 vacation and sick days annually, so there is always a shift that must be filled. Officers who don’t use their allotted time, and most do bank it, retire with termination checks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with substantial pensions.
It might be time to let the public decide how much it wants to spend on policing. Bellone needs to get some parity between what is raised in taxes for police with what is paid. Perhaps his next move should be a referendum to see whether the public will dramatically increase the police district tax to pay for its force. Additionally, a small levy would have to be assessed on county residents who get most of their protection from a local force but some other services, such as forensic work, from the county.
The vote wouldn’t be binding, but if members of the public agreed to hike their taxes, then their representatives should vote for the increase. If not, then Bellone will have to pare back the force or ask the police to come back to the negotiating table.
Endless borrowing and budget trickery don’t work. Cutting essential services is neither wise nor fair. And endless fee hikes are just an evasion of sensible policy. We need an honest discussion about how much Suffolk residents are willing to pay for their police.— The editorial board