County Executive: ‘Let the Public Vote’ on Repurposing Funds During Fiscal Catastrophe

“For my purposes, we should do everything we possibly can to avoid two things: laying off our essential employees, and adding significant new tax burdens on our homeowners during the worst economic downturn that we’ve seen since the Great Depression,” County Executive Steve Bellone said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone took aim at people he said are trying to derail proposed legislation that would help close an $800 million budget gap and ward off tax increases and county layoffs in the midst of a “fiscal catastrophe.”

Last month, Bellone floated two measures that would utilize existing tax stabilization funds, one that is part of the quarter-percent sales tax program that is divided up between tax stabilization funds, open space preservation, and water quality programs, in order to provide an additional $50 million in budget mitigation. The other measure would take excess funding from the sewer tax stabilization fund.

The Suffolk County Legislature would have to approve the legislation and put it out to the voters for approval. This has to be done in the next few weeks, to get it on the November ballot.

“This is an easy call. Fifty million in budget mitigation that protects taxpayers, protects employees, and protects environmental programs,” Bellone said during a press call on Friday afternoon. “Neither of these measures will take a dime away from any existing environmental programs.”

However, he said a small group of what he called professional advocates and Dick Amper, the executive director the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, is putting pressure on legislators not to support it. He has publicly spoken out against the proposal and has said COVID-19 was the excuse the county was using to tap into the funds. According to the county executive, his opponents on these measures have suggested instead the county raise taxes, or institute “a COVID-19 tax” or begin layoffs, and are even seeking to pull more money from tax stabilization funds.

Bellone called them “callous and tone deaf to an astonishing degree” when homeowners and businesses are suffering during the worst economic down since the Great Depression.

“What’s even more astonishing, though, is that there are legislators saying that the public shouldn’t have the right to vote on these tax stabilization measures,” he said. “It’s one thing for professional advocates like Dick Amper, to sit up in an ivory tower and say, ‘Don’t touch my program. You can just tax people, you can just lay people off.’ It’s another thing for legislators who have a responsibility to actually address this problem to say that.”

Amper could not be reached for immediate comment.

Bellone called it “a common sense” measure, but the public will not get to decide for themselves unless the Legislature approves it for the ballot.

“You don’t want to let the public vote on this $50 million? Okay, here’s what $50 million looks like when it comes to our taxpayers and our employees. For perspective, the county tax would have to be increased by 107 percent,” he said. Another option: 700 employees would have to be laid off to makeup for the $50 million. “Alternatively, we’d have to eliminate all funding for contract agencies, 100 percent of funding for contract agencies that provide mental health services, addiction recovery services, support for domestic violence victims, anti-gang initiatives, among many others.”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused what the county executive has called a “cataclysmic” budget shortfall of $1.5 billion through 2022. Nassau County is in a similar predicament, and after a bi-county COVID-19 economic impact report was released yesterday, both county executives renewed a plea for the federal government to provide disaster relief. It remains to be seen whether that will come through.

Bellone said local measures still have to be taken, and the proposals before the county legislature would help protect taxpayers and employees.

“The hope is that with federal disaster assistance, instead of having a catastrophic budgetary situation, it will become a manageable fiscal crisis. Think about that for a moment. Our goal with federal disaster assistance is to get to a place where we are managing a fiscal crisis. What that means is we have to make decisions on the local level to address this fiscal crisis.”

Bellone said he wants to do everything possible to avoid layoffs and tax hikes. He said he was confident that given the opportunity, voters would agree. “Allow the public to vote,” he said.

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