Making Democracy Work

Stock photo

By Nancy Marr

Water is a basic need and should be considered a right. In the Earth Day Legislative Package in June, the New York State Legislature included a proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution that would ensure that clean water and air are treated as fundamental rights for all New Yorkers. The bill prioritized keeping contamination like dangerous chemicals and pesticides out of our drinking water. Unfortunately, although it passed in the Assembly, it was not passed in the Senate.

All the water for Long Islanders comes from our three underground aquifers, including the water in our bays and harbors, lakes, ponds and streams. Experts tell us that some of the water in the uppermost aquifer is no longer safe to drink. 

In the deeper aquifer (the Magothy), nitrogen and pesticides have increased by 200 percent between 1987 and 2005. Nitrogen pollution creates algal blooms in most of our bays, breeds weeds that choke lakes and ponds and threatens our fisheries and our recreation. 

The deepest and oldest of aquifers (the Lloyd) is small; water is being withdrawn from it, resulting in salt water intrusion in the Sound and Great South Bay. Although surface waters require nutrients, such as nitrogen, to support healthy ecosystems, excessive nitrogen can cause aquatic weed growth that draws oxygen from the water, producing “dead zones” where dissolved oxygen levels are so low that aquatic life cannot survive. 

To preserve its land, the five eastern towns (Southampton, East Hampton, Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island) in 1998 created a community preservation fund, paid for by a 2 percent real estate transfer tax to purchase land to provide watershed protection through open space. (Recently, out of concern with nitrogen, referenda in the eastern towns have made it possible to use up to 20 percent for nitrogen removal.)  

Nitrogen intrusion has been attributed to two factors: wastewater from cesspools and runoff from lawn and agricultural fertilizer. In 2017, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) introduced a Septic Improvement Program to replace existing cesspools and septic tanks with new systems that averaged an output of 9.2 mL of nitrogen, compared with systems that discharged anywhere from 40 to 120 mL in influent flows. To encourage homeowners to enroll in the program, the state, the county and Southampton and East Hampton offered grants and loans to cover the cost of the installation. The homeowner pays the maintenance.

The 2015-16 New York State budget appropriated funds to the Long Island Regional Planning Council (LIRPC) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in consultation with the Indian Nations, local governments and interested organizations, to create the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan, or LINAP. Data, sorted by watershed, will make it possible to assess conditions and assist with prioritization. A project management team is responsible for LINAP administration and management, but local ownership and direction in its development is key. 

In addition to public education, a bill to reduce the intrusion of discarded pharmaceuticals into the water supply through the Drug Take Back Act passed in both the Assembly and the Senate and was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in early July. 

In April of 2018, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) introduced a bill to prohibit the sale of any lawn fertilizer in Suffolk and Nassau counties with more than 12 percent nitrogen, with at least half of it water insoluble. It passed in the Assembly but when introduced in the Senate by Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), it failed on the grounds that it is not certain that the nitrogen in the fertilizer is the major cause — that the 12 percent limit is arbitrary and unscientific.  

Many local coalitions and organizations are involved in the campaign to keep our waters clean. They have lobbied and raised awareness. But even more action by Suffolk County voters is needed. On Nov. 6, voters will elect New York State Assembly and Senate members. If you are concerned about the quality of our water supply, let the candidates in your districts know that nitrogen intrusion is an important issue and urge them to support measures to remove it. 

For more information, visit the websites of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Group for the East End, Water for Long Island and the Nature Conservancy.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Students line up to speak at a March for Our Lives rally in Port Jefferson Station on March 24. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Judie Gorenstein

Our democracy works best when everyone participates. Although the League of Women Voters works diligently to encourage all citizens to be informed and active participants in our government, engaging and motivating our youth is a particularly important challenge. Nationwide the young are the least likely to turn out to vote. In the 2016 presidential election, only 50 percent of young people voted. Reasons varied from apathy to alienation, from not feeling their votes counted or mattered to not seeing voting as being important.     

Over the past few years local leagues in Suffolk County have made great efforts to transform students into educated and motivated voters, and 2018 is a good example.

Voter registration drives are held at both colleges and high schools.

Vote 18 is an interactive lesson plan for government classes. This program does more than just register students. It takes them first through the history of voting followed by participation in a mock election for a political office. Following the discussion, the students running for office make their speeches, and before a vote is taken a percentage of students are not given ballots and not allowed to vote. Students see for themselves how nonvoters make a difference in election results. The message is strong: Do not give up your power. Your vote does matter. It is not only important to register but to vote. The majority of students register to vote at the end of this lesson.

Students Inside Albany is a selective, three-day program with 60 students chosen by local leagues from all over the state. They have the wonderful experience of seeing for themselves how their government works. They tour the capitol building in Albany, shadow their NYS Senate and NYS Assembly members, sit in on a legislative session, learn how to lobby and much more. The students are often amazed that it is so different from what they anticipated and often are motivated to explore a political career. Some students have even been given summer internships with their elected officials.

Student Day at the Suffolk County Legislature is co-sponsored by the LWV and the Suffolk County Legislature. High school students take a day to learn about their county government by meeting and hearing from the presiding officer and members of the Legislature and department heads and then prepare for and participate in a mock legislative session where they debate and vote on a bill.  

Running and Winning is a one-day workshop for girls from local high schools to encourage them to consider a political career. Women public officials make brief presentations and then are each interviewed by a group of students who design and present their own political campaign for a virtual woman candidate. Many girls who have never considered political careers leave feeling they can do and be anything they want and will consider public service. 

We strive to develop and present programs that will engage students, which has often been difficult. Recently things began to change. Student groups sought out the league and became student members and learned from us.

Next Generation Politics, a youth nonpartisan political group asked the LWV of Huntington to help with its first event, a public debate on the electoral college versus the popular vote. This group has now affiliated with over 50 chapters in 15 states and works to promote its mission of nonpartisanship and civic engagement. 

Girl Scout troops called the LWV of the Hamptons to develop a program to help their girls earn their suffrage badge. Libraries and high schools have contacted us asking to do youth programs because of a need and interest in their community. 

On college campuses, students came up to our voter registration table and thanked us for being there. 

After the shooting at Parkland High and the youth-created activist movement March for Our Lives, students everywhere are seeing the need to act, to speak out and to have their voices heard. They are now engaging each other, realizing the power of their vote and wanting to make a difference as the future leaders of our country.

Judie Gorenstein is vice president for voter services of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Your neighbors as citizen educators and advocates

By Lisa Scott

The League of Women Voters of Suffolk County (LWVSC) has been writing a monthly column in this paper for the past 10 months. We thank Leah Dunaief for giving us this opportunity to share our insights and information with TBR readers (in print and online) and look forward to continuing this league “outreach” to our fellow Suffolk County residents each month. We chose the title “Making Democracy Work” very deliberately, since “Work” refers to both a functioning democracy as well as alluding to the “roll up your sleeve” efforts of the league and all of you as responsible citizens in Suffolk.

LWVSC has no actual members — our local leagues in Brookhaven, the Hamptons, Huntington, Shelter Island and Smithtown are the member organizations. The board meets monthly as we exchange best practices and insights, address challenges and plan joint league activities and visibility, as well as observe and study county government and issues and construct responses on a county level. 

We share, we learn, we argue, we support and we inspire greater league visibility and effectiveness. The league is very much a grassroots organization in which our local community/town leagues are vibrant and active on local issues and study and share state and town issues and insights in order to reach consensus to further action.

The league’s passion and mission focus on voter education (in many forms) as well as advocacy on issues that we’ve studied on all government levels. Our overarching philosophy is being nonpartisan: We never support or oppose candidates or parties. We’re collaborative and have a strong commitment to civil discourse and civic engagement.

We recently held our 50th annual convention, which reflected the activities and events Suffolk local leagues held in the past 12 months. We’d like to share some of these with you in order to celebrate the scope and depth of what the league (your neighbors here in Suffolk County) is able to accomplish.

•We held over 100 voter registration drives and distributed voter registration forms at cooperating retail locations, events, fairs and naturalization ceremonies.

•We sponsored or moderated over 20 candidate debates for school boards and for town and county government offices.

•We work closely with the Suffolk County Board of Elections to better understand election processes and rules, advocate for increased voting accessibility (e.g., early voting, no excuse absentee ballots, etc.) and recently met for an overview of poll worker training. 

•There are numerous strong league youth programs that include a selective Students Inside Albany three-day conference; an annual Student Day at the Suffolk County Legislature; a Running and Winning program for girls; working with Girl Scouts on government and woman suffrage badge requirements; presenting a Vote 18 program for high school seniors; and encouraging schools to contact the Board of Elections for education on the voting machine process (using a sample “ice cream ballot”). We developed and publicized public service audio spots for local colleges and communities to remind people about election day and hours and we worked with youth-led political action groups to create Youth Engaging Youth programs to promote civic engagement.

•We hold lots of public information meetings on a wide range of civic topics ranging from elected officials speaking on topics of concern (e.g., Assembly member/committee chair Steve Englebright on offshore drilling and water issues) to an informational meeting on end-of-life choices and decisions. We invite officials such as town justices or town trustees to explain and discuss their roles; host debates on the NYS constitutional convention referendum; presented a panel on immigration on the south fork of Long Island and hold annual town supervisor meetings to discuss challenges and plans.

•There are celebrations, outings and learning opportunities as well: celebrating the LWVUS’ 98th birthday (we were founded by leaders of the woman suffrage movement in 1920); commemorating NYS woman suffrage in 1918 with multiple events, programs and speakers; holding Community Conversation lunches to informally engage with local leaders; organizing tours of less-known communities and sites in our own areas and co-sponsoring films and reading books with panels and discussions.

The public knows the league for debates, voter registration drives and observing at and speaking before local and county government. We’re particularly proud of our annual Directory of Public Officials and the election/voter information available from our website and phones. Learn more about us, help us further achieve our mission to educate and advocate in Suffolk County, join us and support us. Make Democracy Work!

Lisa Scott is president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

By Lisa Scott

At the end of March Gov. Cuomo (D) and the New York State Assembly and Senate agreed to a $168 billion budget that tried to please constituencies in an election year while ignoring reforms that are desperately needed. Budget negotiations were conducted behind closed doors among the governor and three top legislative leaders, out of sight of even other lawmakers. It was clear that the policy issues such as gun control or bail reform would not be addressed until (possibly) after the budget’s April 1 deadline, in favor of financial considerations. 

The governor had drafted initial budget proposals that touched on many progressive reforms, yet the negotiations showed that a Republican-led NYS Senate was able to fight hard against any new taxes and fees, and defer inclusion of social policies, while the NYS Assembly had pushed for a large spending increase in its initial budget proposal. The financial 900-lb gorilla in the room was the impact of the new federal tax plan whose cap on SALT (state and local tax deductions) would fall the hardest on New York’s middle class homeowners and taxpayers. The governor called the tax plan “an arrow aimed at the economic heart of the State of New York.” 

The budget also included $26.7 billion in school funding, which will prove useful to incumbent Senate and Assembly members as they campaign for re-election this November.

The League of Women Voters, along with other good government groups, has lobbied long and hard in two areas that were ignored in the final budget: election reform and campaign finance and ethics reforms. Although including the funding for reforms in the budget is the likeliest way to ensure their adoption, it is still possible for the NYS Senate and Assembly to pass bills on these reform areas stipulating their adoption and funding in the following fiscal year (if funding is actually needed). The NYS Senate and Assembly only meet until June 20, so the time for lobbying and constituent pressure is of the essence.  

Election law reforms advocated by the NYS League of Women Voters

Early voting

The league supports enacting early voting in New York State. Currently 37 states allow for some form of early voting. Early voting should be implemented in a manner that will allow equivalent access to the polls for all voters.

 Voter registration

The league supports Election Day registration, on the same day, as a proven method of increasing voter participation. The league also will support reducing the voter registration deadline to 10 days before an election. The league supports pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds.

Ballot design

The league supports improvements to ballot design that would make a clear delineation between offices with a bold vertical bar and a fine line between the candidates, a larger font with an absolute minimum size and fill-in circles in black instead of gray.

Automatic voter registration 

Currently 10 states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration (AVR). The league supports an opt-in AVR system that would not require voters to duplicate information. The league supports all state agencies participating in an AVR program.

No-excuse absentee

The league supports a constitutional amendment to allow for no-excuse absentee voting. Currently 27 states and the District of Columbia allow for no-excuse absentee voting.

Single June primary

The league supports legislation that would create a single combined congressional and state June primary date and would bring New York State into compliance with the Military Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act. 

Electronic poll books

The league strongly supports replacing printed poll books with electronic poll books to eliminate time and resources spent producing paper poll books and updating voter information and to speed up processing voters at the polls on Election Day. 

Campaign finance and ethics reforms advocated by the NYS League of Women Voters

Ban ‘pay to play’

Strict “pay to play” restrictions on state vendors. The U.S. attorney’s charges that $800 million in state contracts were rigged to benefit campaign contributors to the governor underscores the need to strictly limit contributions from those seeking state contracts.

Close ‘LLC loophole’

Ban unlimited campaign contributions via limited liability companies. LLCs have been at the heart of some of Albany’s largest scandals. 

Strict limits on outside income

Real limits on the outside income for legislators and the executive branch. Moonlighting by top legislative leaders and top members of the executive branch has triggered indictments by federal prosecutors.

Create a database of deals

A “database of deals” will list all state economic development benefits, including grants, loans or tax abatements awarded to a particular business or organization. The database of deals will also include the cost to taxpayers of each job created, and create a uniform definition of what a “job” is across subsidy programs including full time, part time, permanent and contract jobs.

Many good government groups like the league continue to lobby our elected officials in Albany until the end of the session in late June. Please review the above list of reforms, choose one or two, and call or write your NY State senator, Assembly member and Cuomo to express your opinion and priorities. To find the legislators who represent you, enter your street address and ZIP code in the LWV of New York State website link: https://salsa.wiredforchange.com/o/5950/c/8551/getLocal4.jsp.

Lisa Scott is president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

The last decade has taken a toll on Suffolk County’s economy. Stock photo

By Peggy Olness

Note: This article builds on the information contained in the TBR newspapers on March 2. www.tbrnewsmedia.com/making-democracy-work-suffolk-county-government-revenue/.

The $3.06 billion 2018 Suffolk County Adopted Operating Budget is an action plan to fund the county to provide services for its 1.5 million residents and to detail how revenue will be spent by the various departments and agencies during the fiscal year.

The County Executive’s Recommended Operating Budget is submitted to the Suffolk County Legislature whose Budget Review Office (BRO) reviews the budget to ensure that the projections for revenues and expenses are reasonable.MIt is the BRO’s job to look for possible problems and help develop a budget that the Legislature can adopt. Given the possibility of unforeseen events, the county government (the executive and Legislature) has over the years built up reserve funds to handle unexpected events that impact revenues such as the Great Recession of 2008-09 or impact expenses such as major hurricanes or nor’easters. Unfortunately, these funds do not completely cover major disruptions.

The last decade has taken its toll on the county’s economy. Since the Great Recession, the county sales tax revenue has not recovered enough to cover its previous percentage share of the county’s operating expenses, and current sales tax projections do not indicate a sufficient increase in future years to reach that percentage share of the county’s revenue total.

The annual property tax increase is restricted to a 2 percent maximum for some of the factors used in the complex calculation of the total property tax. However, the actual calculation brings the total property tax to slightly more than 3 percent above the previous year countywide.

During this last decade, county government has made a number of changes to cut costs. The county now contributes reduced funding to the nine health centers through community benefit grants, most of which will expire within two or three years, and the county nursing home has been closed and the building sold for less than expected.

The county executive’s recommended budgets for the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years eliminated the Public Health Nursing Program (budget cost less than $1 million). This would negatively impact prenatal and postpartum care services as well as Child Protective Services to Suffolk County residents in need. There are no other certified home health agencies in Suffolk County qualified to provide such services to high-risk mothers and children.

The Health Education and Tobacco Control Program (budget cost about $50,000) was also recommended for elimination. That would impact the tobacco cessation and education courses, sexually transmitted disease prevention programs, anti-bullying programs, diabetes prevention programs and reduces the support for 3,000 teachers trained in the HealthSmart curriculum.

There is concern that while cutting further programs saves money, the negative impact on a large number of residents’ health and welfare is not worth the savings. Both the Public Health Nursing program and the Health Education and Tobacco Control Program have been put back into the budget by the Legislature each year. Removing these programs would also lose approximately $400,000 in New York State Public Health Aid to Municipalities.

In the past decade our county government has used short-term borrowing to close the budget gap, expecting that the sales tax and property tax would rebound with enough surplus to cover the loans. This has not happened; since 2014, the county has borrowed $166.3 million and in 2018 the county must begin paying back this loan.

The search for additional revenue has led the county to impose other forms of “taxation” in the form of fees and charges; the county has increased the motor vehicle surcharge, and the tax map certification fee, and in 2017 a new mortgage administrative tax was added.

Suffolk County is facing a serious financial problem. Make your voice heard by doing research and educating yourself further, talking to your Suffolk County elected officials, and thinking deeply about the balance between community needs and community willingness to pay.

Peggy Olness is a board member of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Suffolk County Government Revenue Sources
Understanding sources and concerns

By Peggy Olness

The Suffolk County Legislature is the elected body responsible for public health and public safety, to maintain the county’s infrastructure (mostly roads and sewers) and provide assistance to those in need, for a population of 1.5 million people. The Legislature sets county policies, appropriates funding, levies taxes, reviews and adopts the annual budget and gives the comptroller authority to issue debt to finance capital projects and cash flow needs and issue bonds (incur indebtedness) for specific purposes.

By law the county must have a balanced budget: Revenue must equal expenditures. Also by law, it cannot tax income. Therefore, the county depends on other types of tax revenues, and in some cases borrowing, to meet the cost of the annual budget. The largest revenue sources (as you can see in the pie chart) are the sales tax, state and federal aid, real property taxes and various fees and grants.

It is important to remember that the annual operating budget is a plan for spending. Thus, during the year changes and adjustments must be made to the budget to accommodate what really happens to the tax revenue stream and necessary expenditures to meet the needs of the citizens (for example, a snowstorm).

While Suffolk County collects the taxes, not all of the tax monies collected go into the county’s general fund to pay Suffolk County expenses. The actual distribution of these revenues often involves other funds specific to programs or purposes.

An example of this is the distribution of the sales tax, which represents about 60 percent of the general fund revenue. Suffolk County collects 8.625 percent on most taxable items. The county gives New York State 4.375 percent and keeps the remaining 4.25 percent, which it may distribute in several ways including:

•By law, the Suffolk County Water Protection Fund receives a dedicated one-quarter cent (0.25 percent) of sales tax revenue, which goes to sewer rate relief, general tax relief, land acquisition (Suffolk County Environmental Trust Fund) and water quality protection.

•By need, the county may allocate up to 3/8ths of 1 percent (0.00375 percent) to the police district fund.

•New York State keeps 4 percent of its 4.375 percent sales tax from Suffolk County and gives the remaining 0.375 percent to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. State and federal aid money is received from New York State and the federal government to fund various programs and varies depending upon the program. The total amount varies from year to year.

Real property taxes are imposed on property owners at a rate based on the value of their property. The New York State Property Tax Cap law limits the amount by which local governments and school districts can raise property taxes from one year to the next. Going over this limit (equal to the lesser of 2 percent or the allowable growth factor) requires a 60 percent vote by the government or district.

Another county constraint on the amount of real property taxes is that nearly a century ago the New York State Legislature enacted the Suffolk County Tax Act, which requires that the county general fund use the collected property tax revenue received to make all other taxing jurisdictions within the county (towns, schools, police and other county and noncounty taxing entities) whole even when property owners are delinquent in paying their taxes.

Certain aspects of this tax act create cash flow issues for the county and other local taxing jurisdictions. This problem is currently being reviewed by the Suffolk County Tax Act Study Committee to see what solutions may be possible.

In addition to the taxes on real property the county also collects revenue from real property tax items. These include the revenue on the sale of defaulted properties; interest and penalties on unpaid taxes; and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), which are reimbursements for properties that are off the tax rolls because they are owned by the federal government or exempted for other reasons. These real property tax items sometimes contribute more revenue than real property taxes themselves.

Beyond the various legal constraints mentioned, sales tax and property tax revenues tend to rise and fall with the economy since people spend less in bad times; this can place more burden, relatively speaking, on people with lower incomes. Due to the 2008 Great Recession, sales tax revenues dropped and have not recovered enough to produce sufficient revenue as county expenditures have increased. In 2017 county sales tax receipts grew by 4.28 percent but still came in $2.4 million short of budget projections. Therefore, the county has had to find other ways to generate more revenues.

The county has tried to solve the problem by increasing old fees and imposing new ones. Unfortunately, these new fees have not been enough, and since 2014 the county has had to borrow a total of $166.3 million from the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund (ASRF) to make up the shortfall. In 2018, the county must begin paying back the ASRF.

The new federal tax law, which took effect in 2018, may have significant effects on the county economy, thus leading to more uncertainty about budget projections in the coming year.

(Based on information presented in the Review of the 2018 Recommended Operating Budget prepared by the Suffolk County Legislature Budget Review Office.)

Peggy Olness is a board member of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

By Peggy Olness

In 1968, the citizens of Suffolk County voted to adopt an amendment to the Suffolk County Charter that replaced the Suffolk County board of 10 town supervisors with elected legislators from the 18 legislative districts designated in the amendment. Among the major duties given to the Suffolk County Legislature was the duty of reviewing, amending and approving the annual budgets needed to allow Suffolk County to function.

A budget is a plan that looks at the revenue expected for the fiscal year and the best way to spend to provide the needed services during that fiscal year. The Suffolk County fiscal year runs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 of each calendar year. During each year the legislature must review, amend and adopt three budgets to allow the county to function during the next fiscal year. These budgets are:

•The capital budget covers major construction expenditures such as road and bridge repair and construction, most of which extend for periods of more than one year. The capital budget is reviewed during the spring and usually approved by May.

•The operating budget funds the day-to-day operations of the county departments and agencies and is reviewed in the fall and usually approved in November so that spending can begin Jan. 1 of the next fiscal year.

•The community college budget funds the county’s community college system and is reviewed during the summer and usually approved before the start of the community college fall semester. The college budget covers a period coinciding with the school year.

The operating budget generally receives most of the attention because it has the largest impact on our day-to-day lives and the services citizens receive. The operating budget process begins in the spring when the county executive tells the county departments and agencies what he expects the county financial situation will be in the next fiscal year and requests each department/agency head to submit a budget request for the coming fiscal year based on those expectations. 

The county executive’s budget staff reviews the requests and works with the departments/agencies to produce a budget with which the county executive’s office is comfortable. This budget request is then sent to the county legislature. Each legislator receives a copy, and the legislature’s Budget Review Office begins work on the review and evaluation of the facts and figures in the county executive’s budget request so that it can advise the legislators on any concerns or problems that may occur.

Suffolk County relies on sources of revenue to fund the county budget that are problematic. While the federal government and the states can tax incomes, the county is limited to sales taxes, property taxes and various fees such as the motor vehicle surcharge and the tax map certification. Unfortunately, both sales and property taxes are considered “regressive taxes.” When the economy is good, these taxes produce a sufficient amount of revenue. However, when the economy is bad such as during the recent Great Recession, the revenue from these tax sources is reduced and has not covered all the county’s expenses. 

There are limitations on the amount of revenue the county can draw from these sources. New York State caps the property tax increase each year (2 percent at present). To exceed this amount would require a 60 percent vote by the county legislature.

Currently, the sales tax provides about 60 percent of the general fund revenue. As a result of the sluggish economy, the county has been forced to borrow from several sources to balance the budget since 2008. These loans must now be paid back. Moreover, the sales tax revenue has not rebounded sufficiently to cover the budget. An underlying problem with the sales tax is the increase in internet sales at the expense of “brick and mortar” local store sales. These online sales do not return sales tax to Suffolk County.

In future columns, the League of Women Voters will review some of the problems Suffolk County faces in the future as a result of the changes in the local economy.

Peggy Olness is a board member of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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