Suffolk County’s 2012 budget includes cuts to Cornell Cooperative Extension

North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine failed to convince fellow county lawmakers Wednesday to cut staff in the county executive’s office in order to maintain core programs at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

After the vote failed, with only Mr. Romaine, a Republican whose offices are housed in the same Riverhead building as Cornell Cooperative, and Legislator Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) supporting it, though Mr. Romaine said he’s not giving up on saving Cornell’s youth development and family health & wellness programs, as well as its diabetes prevention program.

“If it closes down, it will be very difficult to bring back,” Mr. Romaine said, prior to the vote.

Outgoing County Executive Steve Levy’s $2.7 billion spending plan did not include funding for those programs, which resulted in a $262,400 reduction in county funding given to Cornell Cooperative Extension. Funding for the programs was also not restored in the Legislature’s six-month omnibus budget, a measure approved Wednesday to add amendments to the county executive’s preliminary budget.

It was not immediately clear if those programs would be cut by Cornell without the county money, how many jobs would be lost, if any, or however else the cuts would affect the research operation. Cornell Cooperative officials could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Romaine sponsored three budget amendments during the Legislature’s meeting in Hauppauge Wednesday in an effort to restore the almost 10 percent reduction in county funding to Cornell Cooperative, which will still receive more than $2.4 million from Suffolk County in 2012.

“[Cornell] got hit harder than any other not-for-profit and they provide direct, vital services,” Mr. Romaine said during the meeting.

In his first bill, Mr. Romaine proposed restoring the youth development and family health & wellness programs by abolishing one chief deputy and a level two assistant in the county executive’s office. There are currently two chief deputies in the county executive’s office, but the other position was already cut in the omnibus budget.

In addition, Mr. Romaine sponsored a bill to restore the diabetes prevention program’s budget by cutting a secretary position, also from the county executive’s office.

“We have to leave [incoming County Executive Steve Bellone] with some staff,” said Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher (D-Setauket).

In the Legislature’s 2012 budget, which passed 16-2 prior to Mr. Romaine’s proposed amendments, about eight positions — including the one chief deputy — in the county executive’s office will be eliminated next year.

Mr. Romaine said he drafted his stand-alone budget amendments prior to the bipartisan budget working group completing the omnibus budget in hopes that they would incorporate and address his concerns about the proposed cuts to Cornell Cooperative.

“I will be working with our new county executive, now that he’ll have a chief deputy, to help find funding for this,” Mr. Romaine said after the vote, drawing chuckles from legislators.

But all wasn’t lost for Cornell Wednesday night.

The Legislature unanimously passed Mr. Romaine’s proposed budget amendment to use about $37,000 from the county’s Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program, which are funds slated for drinking water and open space preservation, to restore Cornell’s pest management program.

Other Cornell programs that will be maintained next year include its agriculture and marine programs.

“This is a budget that’s never going to be done,” Mr. Romaine said of the county’s 2012 spending plan and its six months of funding.  “This is a year where we’re going to be voting on a budget about every single meeting.”

Legislators said passing a half-year budget will give Mr. Bellone, who will become the new county executive in January, an opportunity to find funding for over 600 county jobs. While Mr. Levy proposed 710 layoffs in his spending plan, the Legislature’s budget reduced that number to 88.

In a prepared statement, Mr. Bellone said that while he’s going to allow the budget process to “play out with the Legislature and the current county executive,” he opposes “any general fund property tax increase.”

“I look forward to working with the Legislature when I take office to come up with a budget solution that is fair to taxpayers in Suffolk County,” Mr. Bellone said.

Legislators also passed an amendment to the 2012 spending plan that will increase the county police district budget by $12.4 million next year. Only households in western Suffolk County towns will see the $27 hike in their tax bill to support the increase, since East End towns run their own police forces.

The measure includes a new police recruiting class of 80 officers to the tune of more than $1 million, something Mr. Levy said the county can’t afford now and will only be more costly as the officers move up the ranks. It wasn’t immediately clear what the other $11 million was going to be used for.

“This imbalance will be further heightened [in 2013], when these officers come on the payroll at a cost of $8 million,” Mr. Levy said in a press release. “This same Legislature that claims the budget is out of balance has now added 80 officers they can’t pay for.”

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