Suffolk County’s nearly $3 billion budget for 2017 is waiting to be signed on the desk of County Executive Steve Bellone (D) after it was approved with several amendments by the Legislature Nov. 9. But legislators, Moody’s Investors Service and the director of the Budget Review Office for the Legislature have reported the county’s financial situation is dire.
The Legislature approved amendments to Bellone’s budget by an 11-7 vote. The Public Health Nursing Bureau, the Tobacco Education and Control Program and increased funding for overtime in the Sheriff’s Office were among the beneficiaries of the Legislature’s amendments.
Legislator for the 13th District, Rob Trotta (R- Fort Salonga), was among the seven who voted against the budget. He notably called for the resignations of Bellone and District Attorney Tom Spota (D) earlier this year for their roles in the promotion of former county police commissioner, James Burke, who in February pleaded guilty to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
“The county finances are in total shambles,” Trotta said during an interview in his Smithtown office Nov. 15. “[The other legislators are] sticking their head in the sand. They’re not addressing the real problems. No one wants to address the problems. You need colossal change.”
Trotta’s primary concern is contractual pension and pay increases for county police officers. The former county police detective likened Suffolk’s current financial situation as treating a scratch on an arm that is hemorrhaging blood due to a severed hand. The county and the Police Benevolent Association agreed on the current contract which runs from 2011 to 2018.
Trotta estimated for every 200 cops that retire, it could cost the county more than $60 million. “We need to generate businesses and growth, but we can’t afford to,” he said.
Robert Lipp, director of the county legislature’s Budget Review Office, expressed many of the same concerns Trotta had in his assessment of the county budget.
“How are we able to provide services at needed levels when facing a structural deficit that is far in excess of $100 million in each of the past several years? It is a conundrum,” Lipp said in a letter accompanying his review of the budget in October. “The short answer is that the county’s structural deficit is increasingly driving our decisions. As a result, some initiatives, that may be considered crucial, are funded without regard for our ability to pay, while others are funded at less than needed levels because of our deficit position.”
The budget included $26.7 million in revenue from short-term bonds to pay for sick days, vacation days and terminal pay for the police but the measure was rejected by legislators in a bipartisan vote, though the county must still fullfill its contractual requirement with the police department.
“The county sets a bad precedent when paying for operating expenses with borrowing,” the assessment said.
The credit rating entity Moody’s Investors Service has projected a negative credit rating outlook for the county due to outstanding debt and a reliance on borrowing.
The budget actually calls for the collection of $2 million less in property taxes than the maximum allowed by New York State’s tax-levy increase cap. But about $50 million in increased fee revenue from various government services is included in the 2017 operating budget, in addition to more than $42 million in increases already enacted in 2016, according the Budget Review Office.
“In light of the size of the structural deficit, in spite of the large sums of recurring revenue that some of these fees bring in, we are still unable to make a dent in the structural deficit,” the letter from the Budget Review Office said. “That being said, some of these fees have been met with a great deal of criticism, including the false alarm program, the $300 mortgage fee, the 1-percent administrative processing fee on all contract agencies and the red-light camera program, to name a few.”
The county executive responded to concerns with Suffolk’s finances in an emailed statement through spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter:
“We always remain open if people have ideas to save money. Our simple goal is to meet our obligation to the Suffolk County taxpayers. This is a tight budget. But it is a fair budget, which protects taxpayers, prioritizes critical areas and avoids draconian cuts to important services. We will hold the line on taxes, but we will also continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety of Suffolk County residents and make the critical investments in growing our economy and protecting water quality.”
The assessment from the Budget Review Office did project an increase of revenue from sales taxes, which makes up more than half of the county’s total revenue and is an indication of an uptick in the economy. However, the office’s assessment warned sales tax revenue can be volatile, and increases can’t be assumed going forward.
William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), legislator for the 18th District, was among those who approved the budget, though he said he also sees potentially difficult times ahead. He voted in favor of the police contract, and he called the decision a “tug of war” between the need for additional revenue and public safety.
“I think once again the budget definitely was very difficult because of the substantial structural deficit we have,” he said. “We were able to maintain services to pass the budget this year, but we’re getting to a point where we’re going to have to make some difficult cuts … we still are facing a long-term challenge where at some point we’re going to have to make difficult decisions.”
Legislators for the 5th District, Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), and the 6th District, Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), each voted to approve Bellone’s budget. Neither could be reached for comment.