Column: Take the buses off the chopping block

10/10/2015 6:00 AM |

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Before this year, I hadn’t used public transportation regularly as part of my commute since my Boston days — six years ago, back before I moved to Long Island. That all changed a couple months ago, when a medical event took away my driving privileges.

Since then, however, I haven’t needed to use public transit much at all, since my wife and co-workers have so kindly picked me up and dropped me off most of the time. But there have still been at least a couple of times when my wife has been busy transporting our 6-month-old daughter and I needed to get to or from work.

To the bus, it is.

So why was I not surprised to find out a couple of weeks ago that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone plans to cut $10 million in bus funding from his 2016 budget? “Just my luck,” I thought.

The county exec has a lot of projects and programs to juggle. I recognize that. Suffolk is one of the largest counties in the United States and I’m by no means an expert on its $2.9 billion budget. But it just strikes me as so typical of government to slash services from those who need them most with so many other options available. And the county hasn’t even released information about which routes will be affected yet.

I don’t want to make this column about me — how transit cuts would inconvenience my commute to work on some days — when frankly I’m the one who’s lucky enough to have people pick me up and drop me off most days.

But a lot of the people I see on the bus — or a lot of people I would otherwise just drive past when I’m in a car — aren’t as lucky. They rely on bus transportation to make a living or to get their families from place to place.

The gist of the county’s rationale for slashing bus service revolves around the argument that Suffolk doesn’t get sufficient subsidies from New York State. Again, I’m no expert, but let’s say that’s a fair position. A few follow-up questions are in order.

What has the county been doing to get its fair share? This has apparently been an ongoing issue for years. Abruptly cutting services doesn’t seem like a fair resolution.

Then there’s the question of cutting costs: In a $2.9 billion budget, surely there has to be something else — more likely, a few things — that can be trimmed before deciding to slash $10 million from a single service that benefits the county’s poor and disabled.

On raising revenue: Mr. Bellone’s predecessor was keen to tout the fact that he did not raise property taxes. And the current county exec was proud to note in a press release that this is his fourth straight property tax freeze. Fiscal health is a fine accomplishment, but at what cost?

Do you know how much of your property tax bill goes into the county’s general fund? About 1 percent.

So for a tax bill that’s about $6,500, I’m paying $61.80 in county general fund taxes this year.

I think it’s a shame how afraid politicians are to raise that property tax number when it could solve a multitude of problems. I’m not saying double it, but in this case we have the leader of Suffolk County keeping taxes flat just so he can say he kept taxes flat. Meanwhile, certain bus lines are going to be trimmed, people are going to be late for work or miss important doctor’s appointments, and life will go on as usual in the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.

Of course, steps beyond raising taxes or fees are necessary to create enough bus services and fix a number of other county problems. But each year, there is never any talk of increasing property taxes. And for such a small portion of the tax bill, it seems as though the problem could certainly be reduced if there were the political will to do it.

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