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Should state step in to stop Suffolk’s fiscal free-fall? Probably, but politics intervenes
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone chats with Governor Andrew Cuomo last summer before a press conference in Suffolk County.Photo: Governor Andrew Cuomo's office

Greg Blass
Should state step in to stop Suffolk’s fiscal free-fall? Probably, but politics intervenes

We might as well face it: our Suffolk County verges on fiscal free-fall, and before long, all the governor’s horses, and all the governor’s men, won’t put Suffolk together again.

New York’s governor becomes a factor now because most of our county officials seem to have lost their way. A serious option for the governor, long available to him but avoided for reasons we’ll get into, is the creation of an interim finance authority for Suffolk County. But time is neither on his side nor ours.

In 2000, the state virtually took over Nassau County’s finances, saving them from the fiscal breakdown we all see on the path before us here in Suffolk. The state did this by creating the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority. No Nassau budget, bond, spending, and no tax can happen unless it gets a green light from this Albany-created authority. So far all these years, NIFA has held Nassau government from bankruptcy. The problem with NIFA is that Nassau has all this time still hovered near the edge.

A “SIFA” for Suffolk will have to start in Albany the same way NIFA did: the governor’s office. But we have a different person in New York’s executive mansion today than we did in 2000 and he’s a tight political ally of both Suffolk’s Democratic Party chairman and the Suffolk county executive. With today’s political lay of the land, SIFA just “ain’t happenin’.”

These days, the county’s Democratic party leader, along with his GOP counterpart, flutter like butterflies around hundreds of new jobs opening up at the now-bankrupt Suffolk OTB (’06 was the last year OTB showed a profit). Hundreds of OTB hirings of floor attendants, cashiers, custodians and others will operate the Islandia Marriott’s new video lottery casino set to open in February, a rising cash cow for Suffolk, hopefully.

The jobs will pay $12 to $20 per hour, with benefits and inclusion in the state pension system. Though they plan a publicly open job fair in Hauppauge, expect these hirings in OTB to continue the old fashioned way – politics. The party leaders insist this time it will be different, as they make a clarion call for resumes.

As OTB runs the private corporation’s casino, Suffolk is in for millions once it opens ($5 mill for the first two years). But it’s not nearly enough for Suffolk’s getting out of the hole its in.

Though it’s going under, Suffolk County just doled out $200,000 to one of Suffolk’s towns. Sounds generous (with money Suffolk doesn’t have) but the town said they didn’t even ask for it. This was part of a multi-million gift that the Suffolk County Legislature recently handed out to the legislators’ home towns with Yuletide spirit. It’s reminiscent of the wasteful member-items of U.S. Congressional budget deals.

Would a state finance authority have put a halt to Suffolk’s executive and legislature tag-teaming the passage of $46 million worth of fees for licenses, red-light camera tickets, mortgages, etc. for 2015? Or when they made it worse for fees for 2016, adding $50 million more in revenue to the bottomless pit? Each year these were 100-percent increases. Suffolk has all but run out of one-shot revenues, the hail Mary passes of budgeting.

Sales taxes are now half the county’s income, and don’t be surprised when talk starts of raising that as well.

Simply to pay operating expenses, Suffolk has long been in the perilous stage of time and again borrowing heavily, as well as raiding dedicated funds, rolling over and playing deadbeat on its bills from different municipalities such as Riverhead Town’s sewer district, all again for operating expenses.

Forget the internal fiscal watchdogs in county government, such as the legislature’s budget review office, the executive’s budget office, the legislative committees. Their get-up-and-go got up and went. The new county comptroller offers hope, and he may soon have to take a position on a possible SIFA. As for the the bond-rating agencies on Wall Street? Suffolk’s relentless borrowing is their gravy train.

So the checks and balances between the Suffolk legislature and executive have virtually dried up. Meanwhile, an anonymous letter gave a dire warning of huge county bond sales jacked up by cooking the books, a letter that got little more than a collective ho-hum.

Some legislators whispered of holding public hearings on all this, but a whisper is the level where it stays, like a hibernating bat in a dark cave. Recall how this Suffolk crew freely gave away the store with hefty, multi-year civilian and police employee union contracts that are unsustainable. No surprise here, as these county union leaders, for their part, high rollers all, deeply connect with any and all election campaigns in Suffolk.

A Suffolk Interim Finance Authority may or may not work for our county, but where we are now is obviously not working. So until something drastic happens, the good ship Suffolk will just keep taking on water. Even hundreds of millions’ worth of bilge pumps won’t keep it afloat much longer.

Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.

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