The Dennison Building in Hauppauge last month. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Is Suffolk County’s fiscal crisis even worse than we’ve been led to believe? Has it taken something as dire as the coronavirus pandemic to see more accurately how shaky Suffolk’s finances have become?

Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the final due date for payment of property taxes in Suffolk County on this May 31st poses a daunting feat for many. Business is by and large at a standstill. Jobs are gone for great numbers of breadwinners. The economy locally is on its back.

The 10 town governments are the “collecting agent” for property taxes. Under state law, each property owner pays real property taxes annually, usually in a half payment each six months. The town takes its share, sending the rest to the other government entities, namely the special districts (for such services as fire protection, street lights, even sidewalks), school districts, and last of all, payments owed to the county.

Many property owners pay their property taxes gradually, year round, along with their mortgage payments, to their lending bank, or mortgage company. The bank in turn pays these collected and “escrowed” taxes over to the towns. Many of the property owners in all 10 of Suffolk’s towns have raised the alarm with each town hall, growing increasingly anxious for a delay of payment.

Quite a few property owners have no mortgage encumbering their property, and pay their tax bills directly to the receiver of taxes at town hall. Having taken a devastating hit, as so many have in the current economic downturn, many of these property owners find themselves in serious financial stress, and have sounded the alarm with their town hall, pleading for a delay.

Free of any role as the collecting agent, the school districts and Suffolk County don’t get these distress calls that the town supervisors receive. In response to the pleas of these suddenly and deeply financially troubled property owners, the Suffolk County Supervisors Association has urged the NY governor to move this tax payment deadline by executive order from May 31 to Aug. 1, without penalty or interest.

Enter the officials from the county and school districts. They have come to be habitually dependent, year in and year out, on each payment from each property owner, and to take those payments for granted. Proof of that can be found in the crippling level that property taxes have reached, even with “tax caps,” which seem to have become little more than a nice sounding phrase.

Further and more troubling proof of the unappreciated burden these different local governments have created on landowners is the now common practice of borrowing money to pay routine operating costs. This is especially true of Suffolk.

Suffolk County entered into enormous giveaway contracts, covering years, with its police unions, now among the highest paid in the nation. And they did so while freely admitting they had no idea how they were going to pay for this. It has become the single largest factor in Suffolk’s ongoing fiscal decline. Suffolk’s response to the supervisors’ push for extending the deadline for property tax payments has been loudly insistent.

Getting back to its unsustainable practice of bonding for borrowed funds to pay bills for the expense of operations, Suffolk officials have now really let the cat out of the bag. Both the county executive (recently reelected on the assurance that county finances were “stabilizing”), and the comptroller (recently defeated in his election challenge against the executive on a platform that the county couldn’t pay its bills) balk stridently at the very idea of a delay from basically June till August.

They tell us that just a short delay of that sort means the county will default on paying back some of its bonded debt of $329 million due in July, and another $74 million due in August.

Officials in our neighboring county, Nassau, have expressed no problem with a delay for property tax payments requested by their towns. Nassau once had the same kind of huge, spendthrift problem as Suffolk has had these last few years. But the state stepped in and put Nassau’s budget, and virtually all spending, under the control of an authority. This Nassau Finance Authority has kept spending closer to within Nassau’s means, and when Nassau does borrow with bonds, the Nassau Finance Authority makes borrowing easier, and even less expensive. That’s because Wall Street feels far more comfortable floating bonds with a county reined in by Nassau Finance Authority.

Meanwhile, Suffolk’s bond rating dropped again last month for the umpteenth time. We’re only slightly above junk bond ranking. And thanks to the cozy relationship between the governor and our executive in Suffolk, the very idea of a finance authority for Suffolk is out the window. It would simply be far too politically embarrassing.

And that cozy relationship quite effectively dooms any chance for giving a break — any sort of break — to those who really pay these bills. Suffolk County’s mismanagement, for all practical purposes, ain’t their problem. And if they’re reeling in their self-created misery, property taxpayers will have to suck it up. And if they don’t, or are even late, it will be Suffolk who will literally seize the property, with its sheriff deputies, and auction it off.

So let’s end with these two questions: Will Suffolk ever be able to get out of its own way? And do the people really “own” their property in Suffolk County?

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg