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The real key to reining in Suffolk County’s growing debt

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in his office

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in his office in Hauppauge, Feb. 1, 2017. Credit: Ed Betz

You know a municipality is in trouble when, challenged over a new budgetary policy, officials proclaim that Nassau County does the same thing. That’s the position Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and his staff find themselves in as they try to balance the county budget with big fee increases.

Suffolk County increased fees by $42 million in 2016 and budgeted another $42 million in hikes for 2017. The county’s general fund property tax revenue is only about $50 million a year, so to bring in the same $84 million through a property tax increase, Suffolk would have had to hike that tax about 85 percent in 2016 and then another 45 percent in 2017.

That’s tough with a 2 percent tax cap in place, but not impossible. And a tax increase would be a fairer way than jacking up administrative fees far beyond the cost of providing the services they pay for, which is poor strategy, unfair to low-income residents and, according to the county legislature’s counsel, illegal.

The most egregious hike is a new $300 mortgage-recording fee, similar to Nassau County’s, slated to raise $33 million a year, that bears no relation to the cost of providing the service or funding the seven-employee department that does the work.

Legis. Robert Trotta says he’ll introduce legislation to roll back that fee. Another planned hike sure to infuriate residents is a $55 increase in the administrative fees on traffic and parking tickets, which would raise $5.5 million. That increase was tabled by the legislature earlier in February.

And all this scrambling for more revenue through egregious fee hikes is happening even as the county sets up a debt and budget dilemma: By the end of 2017, Suffolk will have borrowed $150 million from a sewer fund and $350 million to pay pensions. Bellone is now lobbying the state to let him borrow $60 million over the next two years to pay retiring police officers for unused pay and sick time.

Each of these moves is doubly damaging to future budgets because in coming years, the county will have to pay for its ongoing pension and separation pay obligations while repaying the borrowing on the past costs it failed to fund. It will have to repay that $150 million from the sewer fund while also plugging the budget hole created by its inability to borrow further from that source.

And all of this quickly mounting borrowing isn’t even included in Suffolk County’s official debt tally of $1.4 billion.

Nobody wants to see taxes increase. Ideally, Suffolk County, regularly running annual deficits of well more than $100 million, would close the gap by cutting spending. That’s something Bellone’s opponents rarely seem willing to do, even though they argue against tax and fee increases. Between the huge checks retiring police officers get on their way out the door and an average cost of $233,000 annually in pay and benefits for each officer, cop compensation is the largest cause of the county’s budget woes. Getting those costs under control is the real key to reining in Suffolk’s budget. But if recurring revenue must increase, the method ought to be transparent tax increases, not ridiculous hikes on fees. — The editorial board