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Suffolk County Has A 2021 Budget That No One Is Happy About

Office of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

Suffolk County has a $3.2 billion budget for 2021. It includes eliminates 500 county jobs, halts the police academy and slashes county services to address a projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall over the next three years related to the pandemic.

A report earlier this year found that sales tax took the largest blow during the first wave of COVID-19 as the county’s main source of revenue — about a $330 million downturn this year. Property tax collections dropped by $35 million with more households on unemployed pausing or reducing their mortgage payments. Off-track betting took a $30 million hit with the temporary closure of Jake’s 58 casino in Islandia.

The 2021 budget passed this week cuts $20 million each from police and county health services. Half of county bus services will be cut to save $13 million, enough to offset lost bus fare revenue and state funding cuts amid the pandemic. That discontinues at least 19 routes for nearly 2,300 riders a day — most of whom are people with disabilities, veterans and seniors.

Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer Rob Calarco said he wasn’t happy with the budget, but acknowledged there is little they can do to avoid drastic cuts without additional federal coronavirus relief.

“This budget is one that I think everyone would agree is one that we rather not have," Calarco said. "When we talk about a budget that balances the budget through cuts, this is what it looks like. It is painful. It is ugly. And it has a dramatic impact to services.

Advocacy groups took aim at the county Legislature before Monday's meeting. They claimed lawmakers “abdicated” their responsibilities when they failed to make changes to Bellone’s budget. The changes could have saved hundreds of county jobs and services.

Calarco defended the process lawmakers took this week. A bipartisan working group decided not to make any major changes to the proposed budget. Then, lawmakers voted on amendments to fix clerical errors.

However, Calarco said it was never their responsibility to approve Bellone’s budget.

“We do not give the county executive’s budget an up-or-down vote. We never have. With the way the law is written the county executive submits a budget to us and we have to, we have the opportunity to make amendments and whatever we don’t change becomes law," Calarco said. "If we did put the county executive’s budget to a vote, an up-or-down vote, and it failed without change with no amendments made to it, it would still become law, because that’s the way it’s set up.”

Republican lawmakers sided with the Democratic-controlled county Legislature to allow the budget for pass without changes, but they made it known they were frustrated.

Bellone blames the shortfall in tax revenues and increased expenses on the pandemic. Republicans, like Legislator Rob Trotta, blamed Bellone.

“This guy has run the county into the ground. And now he is blaming someone else,” Bellone said.

Legislator Anthony Piccirillo said Bellone could have done more to save money — like frozen county salaries. And he said the legislature could have prevented reckless spending.

“And we pleaded with you, at least two of us did, to not give raises out during a pandemic," Piccirillo said. "And yet it went by like nothing was happening, like we were oblivious to what was going on in the outside world.”

Lawmakers hope additional federal coronavirus relief would prevent these cuts and restore county jobs and services. Minority Leader Tom Cilmi is also hopeful of a strong holiday shopping season.

“We cannot rely on additional federal help here. No matter who the president is," Cilmi said. "We have to rely on improving our economy. And we have to do everything we can to ensure there is not an additional shutdown of this economy.”

Many deep cuts would take effect in June. Legislator Bridget Fleming said it's common for lawmakers to make additional amendments in February, under the county charter.

"I want to make it crystal clear that this is not the last time we will consider this budget," Fleming said. "It is very important to note that none of the cuts are scheduled to go into effect before we will revisit the budget and offer amendments. The proposed cuts are not acceptable. They are not. And it is my 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."

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.