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Schneiderman: Painful Cuts Could Be Ahead

“It's going to be a real challenge to shrink government,” says Suffolk County Legislator Schneiderman.

Following a report on Tuesday that the county's long-term fiscal outlook is even worse than previously imagined — a gaping $530 million hole through the 2013 budget year — County Legislator said many people are working on mitigation plans, "and not all of them are painless."

County Executive Steve Bellone, who commissioned the independent panel responsible for issuing the report, declared a fiscal emergency in Suffolk County before Tuesday was over, and said that he planned to meet with legislators and union leaders on Wednesday to address the shortfall.

The task force presented its findings Tuesday in front of the County Legislature, saying it found that both the county executive's budget office and the legislative budget review office had underestimated expense increases and overestimated revenues.

The panel also found that Suffolk County finished 2011 with a $33 million shortfall, its first budget deficit since 1992. Add to that a $148 deficit expected in 2012 and $349 million in 2013, and that brings the county's deficit over three years to more than half a billion dollars.

"The truth is worse than any of us could have imagined," said Bellone, D-Babylon.

Schneiderman, I-Montauk, said Bellone made the right move in declaring a fiscal emergency, and thus encumbering 10 percent of every county department's budget. “That is absolutely the right thing to do, but we all know more has to be done,” he said.

In recent budgets about $100 million in nonrecurring revenue has been found each year to close gaps — an unsustainable practice, Schneiderman said. “It's going to be tough to come up with another $100 million in things you can sell, things you can liquidate.”

He said it was important to the previous county executive, Steve Levy, not to raise taxes, whether it be because he wanted to be re-elected, wanted to run for governor, or just because he thought it was the right thing to do.

"But to get to that point, we forward a lot of money from the future to the present," Schneiderman said. “There are other ways to hold the line on taxes.”

According to the legislator, the county's woes started when the recession hit in 2009 and $100 million in anticipated revenue from sales tax was lost. "We started borrowing against the future,” he said.

But Levy said in a memo he circulated on the eve of the task force's presentation that he rejected several one-shot budget fixes advocated by the Legislature, including digging into the tax stabilization fund and tobacco settlement money and selling county facilities to then lease them back.

Levy said he called for recurring savings, such as closing the Foley Nursing Home to a private operator, but the Legislature refused.

Schneiderman noted that the $530 million isn't a budget hole quite yet — "it's a projected hole."

To fill the budget gap, Schneiderman foresees changes happening on both the revenue and expenditure side — and he insists on starting with expenditures. Though, he admits, it will be difficult for the county to make substantial cuts and still function.

"The first conversation is, 'How much can we shrink county government by?'" he said. "And once we have done that — and we can convince the public that we are bare bones — then I think we can have the conversation about revenue."

Schneiderman said that with the union concessions that are on the table, such as workers contributing more toward their health care costs, the county would be lucky to save $20 million annually, leaving a long way to go. He said he does not see layoffs as a feasible path toward eliminating the projected deficit, as many county departments are understaffed as it is.

County departments have been subjected to very Draconian cuts over the last few years, he said. While the Legislature can attempt deeper cuts, "I don’t see a lot of saving there,” he said.

The legislator said he favors right-sizing and right-staffing the county government, and having an honest discussion about what that costs. “We must have enough revenue to deliver the services we’re required to deliver and the public expects,” he said.

On the revenue said, raising the county sales tax to match New York City's rate would bring in $70 million in revenue annually, according to Schneiderman. He said the hike would be just 0.025 percent, and he wants to exempt certain purchases, such as clothing less than $50.

"The last time they had a shortfall like this, they did raise sales tax, but they raised it a whole percent," he said, also pointing out that the state would need to sign off on the county raising its sales tax.

As for raising property taxes, Schneiderman unequivocally stated, "Not gonna happen."

County property taxes have not gone up in the nine years he has been in the Legislature, and were they to jump now by 10 percent the hike would only bring in $5 million annually, he said.

"It's bad for real estate; it's bad for people struggling to make their mortgages," Schneiderman said. "It really concentrates the burden on a small number of individuals who are already struggling with high taxes.”

Higher fees and fines and more red light cameras are other revenue generating options he said the Legislature should look at, though he said they would be unpopular with the public.

Elaine Jones March 12, 2012 at 12:29 AM
I Cannot Believe You, I did write it seriously. I would love to answer your questions. There are cuts and there are cuts. Cutting the leaf program, which by the way was supposed to be for Senior Citizens, doesn't hurt anyone but the poor people who can't afford to pay to have their lawns cleaned up and the landscapers. The dump is closed on Wednesday now so the landscapers still have to work and now have to pay to get rid of the leaves or probably dump them in the woods. As far as the Sewage Treatment Plant I don't care what it costs to build a better system and not have a private company bring sewage from up island and possibly hurt our groundwater. I would like for my children and grandchildren to be able to live in Amagansett for the furture as my family has for the last 100 years. I hate going to Town Board meeting to complain, but if more people don't we will no longer have the town that so many people have worked hard to preserve over the years. I am tired of watching Theresa and Wilkinson fight with Overby and Van Scoyac when they try to speak or come up with ideas. They need to work together.
Elaine Jones March 12, 2012 at 12:46 AM
Now lets get down to the cuts. Sales tax increases by .025 percent is not a lot and its going to happen. All over the country. Everyone pays. What about higher fines for alcohol related offenses, zoning offenses, criminal offenses.Perhaps it would stop people from breaking the law, and save lives. What about all the violations the Surf Lodge in Montauk has received, but how much have they paid?. Probably the cost of doing business. Getting rid of assets the county and town have they 'NO LONGER NEED' might be a good idea, except not parks that were built for the kids, like the Terry King ball park in Amagansett, and the Fort Pond House in Montauk, which by the way can be fixed. We need to get rid of the waste in government and by that I mean welfare and people who are using the system who shouldn't be. There are five members of the new Town Board and they need to work together, not have the nasty display of arrogance that happened at last Tuesdays work session. Anything is possible if they work together.
Cannot Believe This March 12, 2012 at 02:18 AM
Your arguments on leaves and the dump being closed once a week are not compelling. Other towns close their dumps once a week to save money and the leaves -- well quite frankly look around, every town is either cutting or cutting back their programs in some way. In Southampton you have to put them in paper bags -- may as well be honest with the public and not have a program -- ever try to put leaves in a paper bag? As far as the Surf Lodge and the fines they have paid -- the newly revamped code enforcement department has written hundreds of violations - a credit to the Wilkinson asministration. As far as the penalities that are actually levied, I suggest you ask the judge you endorsed in the last election. She and her colleague decide how many get paid and how much the total monetary penalities are - if the judges reduce the fines how in the world can you blame Wilkinson and Quigley? You make no sense, and your personal and irrational bad feelings towards them skew all your points. Also, I don't see anyone selling the Terry King facility - I see the rink operated better and now an attempt to make the tennis courts useable - which they really haven't been in seven years. Fort Pond House is far from a park. It is a very disturbed piece of property with a dangerous building sitting on it that is ripe with health and building violations thanks to those who used and abused it over the last 8 years. The property was bought with non preservation funds -- for a good reason.
Elaine Jones March 12, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Southampton has more than one dump and they are not all closed at the same time one day a week. I never needed the leaf program, it was made for the Senior Citizens who either can't get rid of their own leaves or can't afford it and it should stay for them. What people are talking about the Surf Lodge is why are Town Officials meeting with them after they have been given numerous violations to perhaps try to make a deal. It is obvious that another summer will happen like the last. Town officials do not usually interfere with Courts. Its good that Sportstime has the hockey rink, but why give it all to them. The town has to repair some things for the kids or raise the money to fix those tennis courts and they have had going on three years to do it. Those tennis courts and basketball courts are for the kids. Fort Pond House if the people in Montauk want it should be fixed, not sold. Quigley and Wilkinson work for the taxpayers and they just don't get it. If you think I'm irrational talk to the other people in East Hampton Town which I did and by the way had to defend Wilkinson and Quigley for a long time until I got tired or better yet watch town board meeting on LTV. They speak for themselves. Why would I have personal bad feelings against either one of them. I have tried to talk to them both at town hall and told them what the people were telling me. I am actaully disappointed that I thought we would have the best town board ever when they were elected.
Elaine Jones March 12, 2012 at 04:09 PM
I also predicted early on that Wilkinson was going to lose the last election because of talking to the people in town and although he got the Independence Party endorsement from Frank he only won by 15 votes. That was a messaage sent by the voters and taxpayers. That is all I need to know.

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