Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone discussed coronavirus precautions in Suffolk County at a press conference March 9, 2020. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The first of two public hearings will take place next week on the $3.2 billion 2021 operating budget proposed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Bellone’s recommended operating budget, delivered to the county legislature Oct. 9, includes staffing reductions of 500 full-time employees and cuts to discretionary spending in public health, public safety and transportation.

Most cuts would be implemented on July 1, allowing time for the proposed cuts to be restored if the federal government provides disaster aid to states and local governments, Bellone said in a statement.

Bellone and other state and local officials across the country have for months been demanding more direct federal disaster aid to help governments recover from the pandemic. It is increasingly unlikely that the local officials will see those demands met, as an impasse on relief proposals drags on in Washington.

In addition to the 500 staff reductions, the county executive’s recommended operating budget would discontinue 19 Suffolk Transit bus routes, including the S62, which runs between Riverhead and Lake Grove along the north shore and the 8A, which runs locally in Riverhead. The cuts will impact 2,300 rides daily, and result in about $13 million in annualized savings, Bellone said. The county’s paratransit services would also be reduced, affecting 200 riders daily, for another $5 million in savings.

Bellone’s budget also would reduce funding for the county police and sheriff’s departments by $20 million. Cuts include the cancellation of two police classes and one deputy sheriff’s class at the police academy, delaying the hiring of 200 new county police officers and approximately 40 deputy sheriffs. The county will also freeze all promotions for sworn officers, Bellone said.

The county executive proposes a 50% across-the-board cut for contract agencies, including substance abuse clinics, mental health providers, domestic violence shelters and gang prevention programs for an annualized savings of $16 million.

Republican legislators have objected to the proposed cuts, arguing that the county has already received $283 million dollars in federal aid to cover county costs associated with the coronavirus.

“The county executive is using the coronavirus to cover up his fiscal mismanagement for the past eight years,” said County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), one of Bellone’s fiercest critics.

“He has taken $385 million from the pension fund, a quarter of a billion dollars form the sewer fund and sold the H. Lee Dennison Building, which he now leases back to house county government offices,” Trotta said at a press conference with other Republican legislators outside the police academy last month.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented economic and fiscal environment, causing a projected two-year budget gap of $437 million and a multi-year shortfall of more than $1 billion, the county executive said in a statement.

“I have been raising the alarm about the need for Washington to deliver the appropriate and justified level of disaster aid for state and local governments for months now,” Bellone said.

“This is a simple matter of fairness,” he said. “As a region, we send billions more of our tax dollars to Washington every year than we ever see in return. We are simply asking that they return a small fraction of that amount to help our region recover as quickly as possible from this natural disaster,” Bellone said.

The first public hearing on the county executive’s recommended budget takes place on Wednesday, starting at 12:30 p.m. The second and final public hearing will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 1:15 p.m. The hearings will be live-streamed on the legislature’s website.

While some legislators will attend the hearing in person at the William H. Rogers building in Hauppauge, others will attend via Zoom. The building remains closed to the public due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Testimony will be taken over Zoom, with sign-up available here. Public testimony will also be accepted by voicemail at (631) 853-3685, by email to [email protected], or by regular mail addressed to the attention of the clerk’s office at the Suffolk County Legislature, William H. Rogers Building, 725 Veterans Memorial Highway, Smithtown, NY 11787. Additional information is available on the county legislature’s website.

The legislature’s 2021 operating budget working group, which is chaired by Legislator Al Krupski, will meet at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 29, Oct. 30, and Nov. 2, and on more days if needed, also in a hybrid fashion via Zoom and in the Hauppauge auditorium.

The legislature expects to vote on the proposed operating budget at its Nov. 16 meeting, which will start at 4 p.m.

The legislature plans to vote on the proposed 2021 capital budget and 2021-2023 capital program at its Nov. 4 meeting, which starts at 1 p.m. A public hearing on the proposed capital budget and program was held Oct. 6.

The three-year capital program outlines planned capital investments in infrastructure, including technology, communications, roads, mass transit, public safety, wastewater treatment facilities, coastal resiliency and improvements to county parks, golf courses and the campuses of Suffolk County Community College.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.