Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announces intended service reductions to county bus lines. Image: Screenshot from county executive video.

Is Suffolk County yet again awkwardly juggling with its finances? Have things been going south for so long that they have to take unseemly, political advantage of the pandemic? Is taking bus riders hostage to get more federal bucks going too far? And what might be the real solution for Suffolk’s ills besides one more federal bailout that they again demand?

Let’s call what occurred in Suffolk County before COVID-19 simply as “BC.” From various sources, including the county legislature’s budget review office, the county controller, and even from the county executive’s own budget office, it’s clear that Suffolk’s finances had already taken a BC nosedive.

Well known are the current administration’s BC, colossal, multi-year contracts for police, for which the county still is unable to pay, as they knew at the outset. This self-created mess alone stands as the single most debilitating burden for Suffolk ever since.

A series of police contracts was railroaded through the county legislature after police union leaders publicly – and brazenly – warned the county executive (and implicitly the legislative majority) in his last bid for re-election, that his candidacy was on the line if the contract negotiations with him didn’t go their way. Suffice it to say, they got their way, he got their help to get re-elected, and guess who’s left holding the bag.

Add to this the repeated, annual budget practice of overestimating sales tax and other revenues, not just for this pandemic year, but for year after year beforehand. One Suffolk operating budget after another, long before any virus, had been so shaky that our county has ranked dead last for fiscal stability in all NY State – that is to say, out of NY’s 62 counties, Suffolk ranks 62nd.

And it was well before the pandemic that Suffolk County lost the confidence of the financial markets, to the point that it earned, BC, no less than eight downgrades for its bonds.

Instead of making the tough decisions that leaders have to make about spending, we have seen years of Suffolk’s BC one-shot revenue scams that didn’t work. Borrowing $385 million from its pension fund didn’t work. Improperly grabbing another $250 million from the clean water fund didn’t work. Selling Suffolk’s Dennison Building for $23 million (with the taxpayers’ paying $108 million to rent it) didn’t work.

And when it comes to the fees Suffolk charges, Suffolk’s administration quietly blew us out of the water, mercilessly cranking up what one has to pay to register a vehicle, verify a tax map number, record a mortgage, pay a red-light camera ticket, even (get this) to be cremated, again, all BC.

Suffolk has already received pandemic relief ($283 million). The CE’s staff says they already spent it, but won’t say how. Newsday can’t bring itself to report that these officials “refuse” to say how they spent it. Rather they characterize it gently, reporting in a rare article on the subject, published on Sept. 23, that the CE’s crew “declined” to detail how it was spent.

In the latest, desperate campaign to find a way out of its lifestyle of governing far beyond its means, Suffolk County government now turns on the working poor who depend on buses — this after cutting millions from the SCPD, canceling two classes at the Suffolk police academy.

So 19 bus routes are to be eliminated. One route on the chopping block, known as S62, between Riverhead and Hauppauge, is used by 339 riders each day, according to the county’s website. Another, 8A, runs within the Town of Riverhead, and is used by 131 riders daily. Ending bus routes on the South Fork is also planned.

Cutting these bus routes to get more federal money is taking as hostages those without a voice. It will disrupt not only the lives of riders, and bus system employees, but also the disabled, at least 200 of whom have no access to a car, according to the county’s own Office for People with Disabilities.

And it’s all because of deficits caused by the pandemic, or so we are to believe.

The county administration, and the county legislature’s legislative majority, do have one available, proven solution they eagerly rejected before, but have to reconsider: create an office of a county inspector general, which will more than pay for itself, whose access, with subpoena power, to all county departments, staff and records will warn of pitfalls before they happen, just as an IG office works effectively in Nassau and many other counties.

Next, though distasteful, the state should create a Suffolk Interim Finance Authority, just as Nassau’s NIFA, with a veto power over all major fiscal decisions, costly giveaways in police contracts, over optimistic budgets, endless bonding, and more.

Finally, Suffolk should partner with Nassau to use the latter’s police academy for future classes, only one of several functions ready for bi-county consolidation.

Unless these measures are taken now, Suffolk will stagger along its unsustainable path with whatever little time is left. Hiding behind the pandemic to qualify for more federal aid simply kicks the proverbial can a bit farther. Consider this: Suffolk has already received $283 million in CARES Act funding, yet it still can’t make ends meet as it struggles with a deficit for 2020-2021 of $800 million. Something has to give. Real leadership means swallowing some pride and doing truly effective restructuring.

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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