Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Thursday called a special meeting of the legislature for Tuesday, July 28, so that legislators can consider and vote on a bill that he says will help mitigate a catastrophic budget shortfall from the COVID-19 pandemic. If approved, voters would get the final say during November’s General Election.
The bill would, for three years, increase the percentage of sales tax that is allocated to the Suffolk County Taxpayers Trust Fund, which is used to stabilize the county’s property taxes. In order to do so, the bill would decrease the percentage of the quarter-sales tax that is allocated to the Suffolk County Environmental Programs Trust Fund, used to offset the county cost of the acquisition of land for environmental protection purposes.
On Tuesday, the Suffolk County Legislature closed the public hearing on the bill, but in order to get it on the November ballot, a special meeting is necessary to vote and move it forward.
The sales tax revenue will be replaced by capital funding, dollar for dollar, so the open space program will remain fully funded, according to the county executive.
“The resolution contains a fail-safe measure in which the revenues would automatically revert to the Open Space Fund should the capital money not be appropriated by the legislature. This fail-safe provision 100% guarantees that open space funding cannot be cut,” a statement from Bellone’s office said.
According to Rob Calarco, the Legislature’s presiding officer, revenue reserved for the Environmental Programs Trust Fund would be reduced from the current 31.10 percent of revenues from the quarter-cent sales tax program to 20 percent in 2020, 24 percent in 2021, and 20 percent in 2022. The amount reserved for the county-wide property tax protection plan would be increased from 32.15 percent to 43.25 percent in 2020, 39.25 percent in 2021, and 43.25 percent in 2022.
Earlier this week, the legislature passed a bill that allows residents to vote in November on the transfer of excess funds from the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund, also to help plug the budget hole.
“I applaud the Legislature for standing with taxpayers and essential employees this week by passing resolution 1414, which will give the public the right to vote on tax stabilization and budget mitigation,” Bellone said in a statement. “Now we must also adopt resolution 1413, which will help protect taxpayers and essential employees from the worst impacts of the financial emergency caused by COVID-19.”
Sales tax revenue, which makes up about 40 percent of the budgets in both counties, is down dramatically. Suffolk is facing an $800 million budget gap over the next two months and is facing a budget hole of up to a $1.5 billion through 2022.
Dick Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, have come out against the proposal. Bellone called his objections “callous and tone deaf to an astonishing degree” when homeowners and businesses are suffering during the worst economic down since the Great Depression.
“You want Suffolk residents to pay a new COVID-19 tax and for the County to lay off employees. We do not,” Amper wrote in a response to Bellone. “County residents are already paying exorbitant taxes. It is you who have threatened to lay off county employees in order to win support for new taxation.”
Bellone, with other Long Island and state officials, have joined Governor Andrew Cuomo in repeatedly calling for federal disaster assistance. Layoffs and major budget cuts are a possibility if more isn’t done on a county and federal level.
“Our first responders, healthcare workers, grocery store employees, and all other essential workers carried us through this crisis and should not now be forced to bear the burden of the financial hardships this pandemic has caused,” Bellone said. “While we need federal disaster assistance to recover, we must also adopt common sense budget mitigation measures like this one to protect taxpayers and county employees from the damage of this unprecedented financial emergency,” Bellone said this week.
The Legislature’s Budget and Finance Committee will consider the measure on Tuesday at 2 p.m. A meeting of the full legislature will follow at 2:30 p.m. Both meetings will be held via Zoom and will be live streamed at scnylegislature.us.
During the 2:30 meeting before the full legislature, a public portion will be held. Those wishing to speak may sign up by visiting scnylegislature.us/publicportion. Members of the public may also submit a three-minute phone message in advance to 631-853-3685 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters may also be mailed to the attention of the Clerk’s Office at the Suffolk County Legislature, William H. Rogers Building, 725 Veterans Memorial Highway, Smithtown, NY 11787. All comments will be distributed to legislators.