Legislator Calls Planned Cuts In County Budget Unacceptable

County Executive Steve Bellone. DANA SHAW

Unless Congress sends more COVID-19 pandemic disaster aid, Suffolk County plans to make severe cuts in staffing, programs and services midway through 2021 under the terms of a $3.197-billion operating budget that was adopted with only technical changes on November 16 by the County Legislature.

The 2021 spending plan, proposed in early October by County Executive Steve Bellone, totals $33 million less in expenditures than the approximately $3.2 billion budgeted for the current year.

Even though they accepted the spending plan last week, many county legislators are vowing the cutbacks will never happen.

“The proposed cuts are not acceptable,” Legislator Bridget Fleming of Sag Harbor declared in a prepared statement on November 17, the day after the legislature approved the plan.
She said it was her position that “we need to fight like crazy to convince the federal government to stop stalling and offer a stimulus package and the support that local governments need to stay afloat.”

Mr. Bellone made the same point in his grim budget message, which he delivered to the legislature with the spending plan last month.

“The failure of Washington to provide direct disaster aid for state and local governments will inevitably result in devastating cuts to vital police, health and transportation services,” he wrote. “This cannot happen. Washington must act. These services are not only vital as we battle the pandemic now, but will also be critical to our recovery in the coming years.”

The economic slowdown sparked by the pandemic is shrinking expected sales tax revenues by an estimated $427 million over the next two years, and more than $1 billion through 2024, according to Mr. Bellone. His budget calls for 500 full-time job cuts, cuts in bus services and reduced funding for clinics, health agencies and non-profits.

In 2020, the county received more than $284 million in emergency pandemic relief from Washington. So far, there is no sign that Congress will take any action before the end of the year on a new stimulus package.

Without more disaster aid from Washington, D.C., the New York State Association of Counties has urged all counties in the state to plan on a 15-percent drop in state aid and reimbursements on top of the expected drop in local tax revenues, according to Mr. Bellone, who said his budget follows that recommendation.

The budget freezes general fund property taxes for the ninth year in a row and complies with New York State’s 2-percent cap on annual general fund tax warrant increases, Mr. Bellone said.

Nevertheless, the average county homeowner will see an increase of $28.25 in the county portion of his or her property upcoming tax bill, from $1,199.68 to $1,227.93, or about 2.3 percent. The impact will be lower on the East End, in part because its taxpayers do not directly fund the Suffolk County Police District.

The largest share of the budget, 26 percent, or more than $825 million, will go for employee benefits. Public safety is the second largest expense at 22 percent, or more than $715 million. Economic assistance accounts for 20 percent, at more than $638 million; staff and general government support is the next largest expense category, accounting for 8 percent, or more than $18 million.

Even though local and state governments all over the country are clamoring for help, there has been no progress toward a second federal stimulus package in recent weeks.

The Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives passed a $2.2-trillion plan in early October that would have provided emergency funding for hard-hit local governments. The Trump administration’s counter-offer was a $1.9-trillion package, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected because she said it was too little and lacked funding earmarked for fighting the pandemic. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has vowed that he won’t accept any package costing more than $500 billion.

Democratic hopes for an end to the standoff depended on wresting control of the Senate from the Republicans along with a Biden win in the November 3 election.

While Mr. Biden’s is widely expected to be inaugurated in January despite President Trump’s claims of election fraud and his legal push to rewrite the results, Democrats saw no anti-Trump “blue wave” against incumbent Republican senators on November 3.

Republicans gained one seat overall and Democrats gained two, shifting the balance to 50-48 in favor of the GOP with two races in Georgia still to be decided in runoffs on January 5.

Both Democratic candidates in the Georgia runoffs would have to win to give Democrats half the Senate’s 100 seats and incoming Vice President Kamala Harris the potential tie-breaking vote as president of the Senate.

Meanwhile, “Washington is effectively defunding suburbia” by failing to enact a new stimulus package, Mr. Bellone said in his budget message.

“These cuts should not happen and that is why Washington must act as quickly as possible to deliver direct disaster aid,” Mr. Bellone said. “The cuts in this budget are set to take effect midway through the budget year. Once Washington delivers direct disaster aid to state and local governments, we can roll back these cuts, focus on containing and overcoming the virus and begin the hard work of recovery.”