*Update* This story has been updated to include a response from county Republicans.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said Friday that this year’s budget will cut about $20 million from police spending, which includes the loss of an entire police recruitment class of about 200 officers.
During a press conference held at the Police Academy located on the Suffolk County Community College Brentwood campus, Bellone reiterated his plea for the federal government to pass additional aid for local governments. The cut to the police class is expected to save approximately $1.5 million and will shutter the academy for what amounts to a year and a half.
“Six months into this pandemic, the federal has failed to deliver disaster assistance to state and local governments,” Bellone said. “My message to Washington is simple: ‘Don’t defund the police — don’t defund suburbia by your inaction.’”
The county executive used language very reminiscent of President Donald Trump (R), who has previously asserted that if Democrats win in November they will “destroy the beautiful suburbs.” While Bellone indicated he does not agree with the defund-the-police movement — which aims to take funds away from traditional law enforcement and put them toward other social services or create new, nonpolice response units — he said that is “essentially what the federal government is doing” by not passing any new aid bills.
Bellone added the county budget, which is expected to be revealed in the next two weeks, will also include cuts to the student resource officer program that has trained cops for work in schools. Those officers will be reassigned.
Additional cuts include the community support unit, suspending promotions, and cuts in county aid to independent East End police departments. These cuts, and potential further cuts hinted in the upcoming budget, could mean less officers and patrols on county streets, according to the county exec, though by how much he did not say.
Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said during the press conference that the loss of the SROs and other specialized officers would be a great loss to the public.
“They are instrumental in intervening, intervening and addressing gang violence, opioid addiction and active shooter threats, while serving as a visual deterrent to illegal and dangerous activity,” she said.
Though Suffolk County received $257 million in CARES Act funding back in April, which Bellone said is used as part of the response to the pandemic, a financial report issued by Suffolk earlier this year estimated the county could be as much as $1.5 billion in the hole over the next three years.
In response to Bellone’s thrust that the federal government has not given enough, Republicans from the county Legislature stood in front of the Police Academy Sept. 22, instead claiming Bellone has not been transparent on Suffolk County finances.
Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), along with other Republican legislators, swore there was a way to keep the trainee cops program rolling, insisting that police are funded by a separate line on people’s taxes, and that unspent CARES Act funds can help cover the cost.
“What it’s like is a guy who has a credit card and he’s maxed out and he owes millions of dollars, then all of a sudden the coronavirus happens, and what does he do?” Trotta said. “He pays a little bit off and now he wants more money to make up for what he did before anybody heard about this.”
Legislator Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters), a member of the Budget & Finance Committee, said he and other legislators have asked the exec’s office to make a presentation to them about the county’s financial state but a person from Bellone’s office never showed.
Trotta insisted the county has only spent a relatively small amount of the funding it received from the federal government, and that the money should go to pay law enforcement payroll. Suffolk County has previously reported most of that money has already been allocated or spent. When asked where Republicans are getting their data, Flotteron said he and others have seen it in reports from places like the county comptroller’s office, but could not point to anything specific.
Republicans have consistently gone after Bellone on county finances, making it a cornerstone of then-candidate and current Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy Jr.’s (R) run against the Democratic incumbent in 2019. Their assertion now is that Suffolk had long been in financial trouble even before the pandemic hit, citing the county’s Wall Street bond rating downgrades over the past several years. New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (D) called Suffolk, with Nassau, the most fiscally stressed counties in the state last year.
Other Long Island municipalities have also begged the federal government to send aid. On Sept. 14, federal reps from both parties stood beside several town supervisors to call for a bipartisan municipal aid bill. The Town of Brookhaven, for example, is requesting close to $12 million, as it had not been an original recipient of the original CARES Act funding.
At that press conference, Kennedy said the county is financially “on the verge of utter collapse.”
Suffolk, Bellone said, would need a $400 million windfall to stave off these massive cuts, and potentially up to $650 million to aid with economic hardship next year.
“We have seen death and devastation … and we are moving forward, but we know we face years of recovery.” he said.