Editorial: No one saw this county financial disaster coming?

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Members of the Suffolk County Legislature and counsel at Tuesday's meeting.

A half-billion dollars in the red? Really?

According to County Executive Steve Bellone, who has been on the job for just two months, Suffolk County is facing a staggering three-year budget deficit of $530 million. In Washington that’s chump change, but here it’s huge — close to 20 percent of the $2.7 billion the county spends in a single year.

Who’s to blame? Everyone, it seems.

The head of a budget review panel appointed by Mr. Bellone shortly after he took office in January identified the U.S. economy as “the biggest villain,” but added that Suffolk had overestimated sales tax revenues. That’s critical, given that the lion’s share of the county’s operating funds is generated by sales taxes. Over and over again we’ve heard how the county has held the line on property taxes. But what isn’t said is that county property taxes on the East End are a small fraction of the average homeowner’s property tax bill — in many cases they pay the county less than half of what they pay for local fire protection.

Most home and business owners keep a sharp eye on their property taxes, but who pays attention to sales taxes? It’s an all but invisible revenue stream providing county officials near failsafe protection from the fallout of drawing billions in property taxes from their constituents. If there were a better accounting for that revenue, as local governments and schools must provide, it wouldn’t be so easy for the county to run up a half-billion dollar deficit.

In political circles, good news has many parents but bad news is an orphan. And so it was this week with all the finger-pointing involving both the current and former county executives and the county Legislature. Since he’s been in office so briefly, Mr. Bellone gets a pass on this one. That leaves former executive Steve Levy and the county legislators. Are we to believe that none among them saw the fiscal calamity coming? Mr. Levy argues that lawmakers added to his spending plans, which is true. But did the Legislature alone add a half-billion dollars in spending above revenues? No — it appears to be a joint failure.

So what’s to be done? It’s simple to state but difficult to effect. The county must either cut spending, increase revenues or implement a combination of the two. There’s no other choice. Layoffs may be necessary, and while that’s certainly a painful option, perhaps it will help shut down the political patronage mill that is Suffolk County government.

Real, honest leadership is what this situation demands, but we’re not holding our breath.