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Newsday endorses Steve Bellone for Suffolk County exec

The story of the first term of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has been a tale of two Steves.

One is the visionary with exciting regional plans, eager to overcome traditional obstacles to progress. This Steve wants to lead Suffolk to a bright future with a reinvented economy in which new businesses offer good-paying jobs in places where people can work and live, all linked by a modern transportation network.

The other Steve is forced to focus on the financial crisis he inherited when he took office in 2012, a crisis that threatens those big plans. And he has made progress. The county is not in as dire shape as it was then. But it still is in trouble and he continues to work at it, even if he'd rather be doing something else.

Bellone, a Democrat from North Babylon, says he focused 98 percent of his time in his first two years on the budget but does not "obsess" about it. He obsesses, he says, on the region. We understand. A stronger economy will lift county finances, but the ship never will reach the new world if you don't fix the leak in the hull.

His opponent, Great River attorney James O'Connor, IS obsessed with Suffolk's budget. It's his one real issue. And he's asking the right questions about deficits, debt, and borrowing.

O'Connor, a Republican and former North Hempstead Town Board member and building commissioner, says he witnessed Nassau's financial meltdown and worries Suffolk is headed in the same direction. He wants a financial control board for Suffolk to freeze salaries while the county restores its fiscal house.

But even O'Connor concedes that while identifying problems is easy, solutions are a lot harder. And his vision for Suffolk's overall future is lacking.

So what does Bellone's ledger look like?

On the fiscal side, the county:

shed 1,100 employees,

privatized its health centers,

merged the offices of comptroller and treasurer,

got out from a state mandate that it spend $112 million to build another jail,

attracted nearly $400 million in state and federal funding for sewers, and

is near a deal to sell the former John J. Foley nursing home to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center.

On the other hand, the structural deficit has been narrowed but still approaches $100 million in next year's $2.9 billion budget, a continued reliance on borrowing has driven up debt service to a projected $188 million in 2016, and bond ratings have declined, potentially leading to higher interest rates. Bellone trumpets keeping general fund taxes flat, but has increased the much-larger police district tax four times for a total of 10.5 percent, about $104 for the average household.

Another problem: unrealistic estimates of sales taxes, which generate nearly half of Suffolk's revenue. The current budget estimated a 4.87 percent increase; receipts thus far have fallen 1.1 percent. Considering growing Internet sales, stagnant local wages, and lower gas prices, Bellone's estimate of a 2.75 percent increase in 2016 might be too rosy.

Bellone must ensure Suffolk recovers $19 million in health care savings promised by unions in contracts but which have not materialized. He says he's on the case, but he has to deliver soon.

One ongoing program seeks more efficiency in government by using data to measure workers' performance. It's a good idea, but it must produce savings whether through cuts or reorganization. Bellone also would consider adding auditors in the comptroller's office to help root out tax avoiders, another wise step.

He is open to hiking the hotel-motel tax if the money is invested in increasing tourism, through marketing or infrastructure, but opposes asking the state to raise the sales tax. However, like Democrats who are running for legislative seats, he would be receptive to a voter-approved referendum for a small sales tax increase dedicated to, for example, water quality -- an issue he has embraced fervently.

Bellone says he'll work to improve the county police department's relationship with federal law enforcement agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That's welcome news. In the midst of a heroin epidemic and sporadic gun violence, Suffolk's lack of presence on task forces dealing with drug and gun issues is very disturbing.

Given another term, Bellone wants to be judged on his ability to nuture economic development by connecting transit-oriented downtowns with research centers. He ticks off the signposts:

bus rapid transit and bicycle lanes on Nicolls Road,

a new train station at Brookhaven National Laboratory,

a direct connection between the Ronkonkoma Hub and MacArthur Airport,

build-out at the Hub,

progress on the massive Heartland Town Square project in Brentwood,

expanded East End transportation,

more sewers and advanced septic systems, and

a successful Wyandanch Rising project, which hinges on attracting retail to the site.

It's a big agenda. Growing Suffolk's economy would solve many woes, including the budget. We hope he pulls it off.

It's the long game, and Bellone knows it. But he needs to keep playing the short game as well. Fix today's holes as we navigate toward that brighter future he envisions. That would meld the two Steves into one, writing a better tale and a stronger legacy.

Newsday endorses Bellone.


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