by Karl Grossman
It’s a record-high budget recommended for Suffolk County government for 2017 by County Executive Steve Bellone—$2.96 billion, 1.5% higher than this year’s.
Mr. Bellone says the budget is “tight but fair.”
A critic of the Bellone administration’s financial management, Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta of Fort Salonga, says: “Suffolk County’s financial situation is a sinking ship.”
Under Mr. Bellone’s recommended budget there would be no property tax increase countywide but a 3.6% jump in the taxes in county police district. The district is comprised of the five western Suffolk towns—including Brookhaven—except for villages that have retained their own police departments. For an “average” household in the district now paying $1,164 yearly for county police services, this would add $43.
There would be new and increased fees. Among new fees would be a mortgage filing fee of $300, and nonprofit organizations given funding by the county will be charged a new 1% “surcharge” as an “administrative fee.” Also, a county “administrative fee” on traffic tickets for moving violations would be doubled to $60.
And, the county executive would be “authorized, directed and empowered to institute parking fees at LIRR stations where the county has an ownership,” and for the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services to “increase fees for fire and safety inspections currently performed at public schools and school districts.” Further, the county executive would be “authorized, directed and empowered to increase such other fees and fines to offset increased administrative expenses as is appropriate and necessary.”
There would be the elimination of some county services including the public health home visiting nurse services program, smoking cessation program and the “ShotSpotter” program that is used by police to detect gunshots as far as a mile away to more quickly respond. Dropping the visiting nurse program is seen as saving $1.5 million, cutting the smoking cessation program $500,000, and eliminating the “SpotSpotter” program $390,000.
The Suffolk Legislature can amend the recommended budget. The executive can veto its changes and the legislature can override vetoes.
Mr. Bellone in his narrative in the budget document blames the county government’s financial problems on lower sales tax receipts because of lower gasoline prices. “Stagnant sales tax revenues have continued to negatively impact the budget,” he says. “Sales tax revenues, the largest single revenue sources for Suffolk County, has experienced several years of below-average growth…Sales tax revenues continue to be impacted by lower prices at the pump.”
Has bad financial stewardship by Suffolk government also contributed to the situation?
For years there have been county legislators who have pointed to this. Among them were Legislator Joseph Rizzo of Islip Terrace who voted no on expenditure after expenditure even if he was a minority of one and similarly frugal Legislator Tony Bullock of East Hampton who each Thanksgiving announced his “Stuffed Turkey Awards” for cases of waste in Suffolk government.
These days, Legislator Trotta is a leading critic of the financial conduct of the county government administration. “If you told me two-and-a-half years ago it was so screwed up, I wouldn’t believe it,” Mr. Trotta said last week referring to when he became a Suffolk County legislator after being a Suffolk Police officer for 25 years, most of these as a detective. “It’s bizarre, really.”
The fiscal “elephant in the room,” said Mr. Trotta, “is the 28% pay increase in an eight-year contract” agreed to by the Bellone administration. “I don’t blame the [police] unions. Their job was to get the most for their members.” But now increased annual pay hikes in the contract “are kicking in, sales tax revenue is flat” and the Bellone administration is “in a hole” and desperate.
Mr. Bellone in his budget narrative defends his administration’s financial stewardship. He says “we have created new recurring sources of revenue, limited hiring, cut expenditures, and significantly reduced the size of county government. Suffolk government currently is the smallest it has been since 1993, and is nearly 1,300 positions less than the day I took office.”
As to the county’s financial situation, Mr. Bellone says the “only long-term solution is to invest in economic development.” Will that work? This is a big reason why Mr. Bellone has been pushing for sewering in Suffolk—to encourage development which he sees as bringing a financial shot-in-the-arm. Cesspools on which much of Suffolk is dependent—some 30% of Suffolk is sewered—limit commercial and housing development. But neighboring Nassau County is 90% sewered, has become heavily developed, Nassau’s property taxes are much higher than Suffolk’s and its government has been in financial shambles for years. That has resulted, since 2000, in the imposition of a Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, its seven members appointed by state officials, with the power in Nassau to “monitor and oversee the county’s finances.”
Mr. Trotta says a similar state oversight authority is now necessary in Suffolk.