It’s a record-high budget recommended for Suffolk County government for 2017 by County Executive Steve Bellone: $2.96 billion, 1.5 percent higher than this year’s.
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 Bellone’s recommended budget there would be no property tax increase countywide but a 3.6-percent jump in the taxes in the county police district in the five western Suffolk towns where the Suffolk County Police Department is the uniformed force. The towns and villages on the East End — including the Towns of Riverhead and Southold—have retained their own local police departments. But they are still charged for county police headquarters operations and assistance by special county police units such as the homicide squad, arson squad as well as the helicopters of the department’s aviation section.
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 would be charged a new 1-percent “surcharge” as an “administrative fee.”
The Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services is given the go-ahead 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 and smoking cessation program. Dropping the visiting nurse program is seen as saving $1.5 million and cutting the smoking cessation program $500,000.
The Suffolk Legislature can amend the recommended budget. The executive can veto its changes and the legislature can override vetoes.
Bellone in budget narrative 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. Sales tax revenues, the largest single revenue sources for Suffolk County, has experienced several years of below-average growth,” he says. “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 several county legislators who have pointed to this. Among them were Legislator Tony Bullock who each Thanksgiving announced his “Stuffed Turkey Awards” for cases of waste in Suffolk government. He went on to become East Hampton town supervisor.
These days, 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,” 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-percent pay increase in an eight-year contract” with police agreed to by the Bellone administration.
“I don’t blame the [police] unions. Their job was to get the most for their members,” Trotta said. 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.
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, Bellone says the “only long-term solution is to invest in economic development.” Will that work? This is a big reason why Bellone has been pushing for sewering — to encourage development which he sees as bringing a financial shot-in-the-arm. Cesspools on which much of Suffolk is dependent—some 30 percent of Suffolk is sewered—limit commercial and housing development. But neighboring Nassau County is 90-percent sewered, has become heavily developed; yet 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.”
Trotta says a similar state oversight authority is now necessary in Suffolk.
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.
Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.
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