November 08, 2006

County Budget Battle Continues

It's an annual fight. This morning the county legislature was slated to debate amendments to County Executive Steve Levy's proposed operating budget. But, before the full legislature could even get the discussion going, Levy excoriated additions proposed by a bi-partisan legislative committee, accusing lawmakers and the legislature's Budget Review Office of adding millions to his spending plan.

In a scathing press release distributed last Friday, Levy criticized the legislature for ignoring his plea for fiscal restraint. "Deeply dismayed," the CE estimated their amendments and the BRO's recommendations could amount to as much as $48 million in additional expenditures, and nearly double Suffolk County taxes.

Legislative and budget office officials responded to the attack with the equivalent of "What?!"

The lawmakers had yet to finalize what's known as the omnibus budget amendment when Levy sent out his critique. "I disagree with a lot of his claims. He doesn't really know what we're doing yet," Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D., Holbrook) said on Monday.

The legislature's bi-partisan working group finished its amendment effort late Thursday night, the PO reported. BRO worked through the weekend and by midday Monday was just about finished, Lindsay informed.

Levy told The Independent he deduced the huge increase after receiving reports from sources inside the legislature.

In an interview Friday, the county executive complained the BRO makes recommendations "in a vacuum" without considering the cumulative fiscal impact of the suggestions.

That's not their job, Lindsay countered. The BRO's role in the budget process entails analyzing programs and predicting what fiscal impact and benefit they might have, he explained. With the BRO book in hand, lawmakers then have the job of setting priorities and policy.

The legislature would never adopt the BRO book in its entirety, Lindsay said. "We didn't add all or anywhere near all of the BRO's book [to the omnibus]," he said.

There appears to be a philosophic disconnect involving grants to non-profit agencies, like Boy Scout troops or food pantries. Each budget includes member items for individual legislators for this type of allocation. Levy labeled such earmarks as "pork," and criticized lawmakers who "want to play Santa Claus."

"That's the impression he likes to create," Lindsay asserted. The Presiding Officer believes the money goes to non-profit agencies that provide "very vital services." Some operate in individual districts, while others serve the entire county.

To the county executive, such grants are intended as "one shot" allocations, but over time the agencies and civic groups have come to rely on them as part of their annual budgets. Last year, he said, the legislature added $5 million in grants to his budget.

"We could eliminate all taxes," Lindsay mused dryly. All the services the county either provides or supports financially could be excised, the lawmaker speculated. But that would hardly fly with a citizenry with expectations. Summarizing, the Presiding Officer opined, there's a "disagreement between the executive branch and legislative branch on what services are vital or important to the citizens of Suffolk County."

Overall, the legislators' proposal maintains the tax cut the executive called for in his draft budget, Lindsay said. There will be "sizable" reserve funds, and the county's debt stabilization fund would bump up from Levy's proposed $16 million to $20 million. The cost for many of the items the legislature has proposed to include has been offset, Lindsay said, by recalculating both revenue and expenses. Levy's budget underestimated the first and overestimated the second, he said. "We think the budget we're sending back is a very responsible budget," Lindsay concluded.

After today's vote, the adopted resolutions will go to the CE, for either his signature or veto. Then, it's back to the horseshoe for overrides.

Given the tenor of Friday's pre-emptive press release, there's likely to be protracted veto override discussions, even from a legislative majority Levy heralded in January as of a like mind. That month Lindsay vowed the legislature would not become a mere rubber stamp for the county executive. Rarely one to court dissention, the Presiding Officer offered peacemaking praise this week. "There's no doubt about it, Steve is a very austere fiscal steward," he said, pausing for a beat and adding, "He's cheap."

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