Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled some sobering news this afternoon — a report is being released and presented to the state Legislature’s budget committee today that outlines a $1.1 to $1.5 billion budget deficit over the next two-and-a-half years due to COVID-19.
“This cataclysmic impact is far beyond anything we’ve ever seen before,” Bellone said. “We are talking about depress-era-level numbers here.”
He said, putting it in perspective, that number is three times the deficit Suffolk County inherited coming out of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. Before the novel coronavirus hit, in 2019, the county was operating out of a surplus. Suffolk started this year ahead of pace to eliminate the last bit of that inherited deficit, Bellone said. Municipal and finance experts on the COVID-19 Fiscal Impact Task Force helped put together the report that will soon be released by the county executive’s office.
“It’s an important document because it provides a real understanding of what we are grappling with, the depth of what we are grappling with as a government,” Bellone said. “And it’s clear we have a long road ahead. The work to transform this government, to make it more efficient and to put the pieces in place necessary for it to reach its potential — all of that work needs to be accelerated; it’s critical.”
He said moving forward, Suffolk County will need help dealing with the ramifications of that response to the pandemic.
“There’s no way for the county to fix this problem, this COVID financial crisis without assistance from the federal government,” Bellone said. “This history of this country has been the federal government comes in to assist local communities . . . This is a national emergency, and it would be the greatest of ironies to say, ‘We’re the federal government, we’re the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and this is what we need to do to respond to this global pandemic, to protect ourselves here, to save lives here,’ and then to turn around and say the devastating economic impacts of that will be felt here.”
The county executive knows there will be tough choices to make, but wants residents to know this is not their burden to bear.
“If ever there was a time that a local community needed their federal representatives to deliver for them, that moment is right now,” Bellone said. “The COVID-19 national financial crisis is not a burden that should be borne on the tax payers here on a local level. They did not do this. This should not be borne by the nurses, and police officers, and 911 dispatchers, and other essential employees. They should not be worrying today about whether we can meet payroll or not in the weeks and months ahead.”
He said, in fact, those people are the ones that responded to the pandemic.
“This is going be a long-term crisis we’ll be rising from,” Bellone said. “As we work to get our economy open and begin the long, hard process of really recovering, we continue to deal with a public health crisis and a public safety crisis. Now is the moment for the federal government, our national government, to step in and say, ‘Yes, we have your back. You’ve done your job, and we will do our job to be here for you and support you in what you need moving forward.’”
Over the next couple of days Bellone will be meeting with public employee unions to lay out the details of the report. He will also be meeting with legislative leaders to do the same and discuss actions that will need to be taken.
“This is not something we get through alone,” Bellone said. “These are tough conversations and extraordinarily difficult challenges. These are essential employees and we’re still engaged in this crisis right now. We’re trying to keep a second wave from happening.”
He said he is confident the state’s congressional delegation will deliver and the national government will step up and do what needs to be done in this unprecedented situation. Bellone even commended the “outstanding” bipartisan cooperation, partnerships with state Senator Charles Schumer, who has been in constant contact with the county every step of the way, including in securing access to the Municipal Liquidity Facility, a Federal Reserve initiative to extend emergency funding to governments; Congressman Lee Zeldin, who delivered critical personal protective equipment and also worked closely on the Municipal Liquidity Facility; Congressman Tom Suozzi, who fought to get aid and relief to Suffolk; and Congressman Peter King, who crossed party lines to support and vote for the latest U.S. House of Representatives bill providing relief for local governments.
“That’s as it should be in a crisis like this,” Bellone said. “We saw this with Superstorm Sandy, we’re seeing it now, and that’s important. This is beyond what a local government has the capacity to deal with on a local level.”
“Our response to this, the way that we battled this was to shut down the economy, to take a pause,” the county executive continued. “We needed to reduce density, and we did that. It worked. We flattened the curve and we saved countless lives. Our residents, our taxpayers, our essential employees did that and they did it the right way, and they were successful. They did that they’re supposed to do. They shouldn’t have to pay for that.”