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County Executive Steven Bellone State of the County Address

Categories: County Executive | Author: emoltzen | Posted: 4/18/2012 | Views: 10073
April 18, 2012

Thank you Presiding Officer Lindsay, Minority Leader Kennedy, and the members of the Suffolk County Legislature for serving as host tonight. Thank you to News 12 and Fios 1 for streaming this address live to Suffolk County residents.

Thank you to my fellow Countywide elected officials who are my partners in government, Treasurer Angie Carpenter, Comptroller Joe Sawicki, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, District Attorney Tom Spota and Clerk Judy Pascale.

I want to talk with you tonight about the State of Suffolk County today and how the decisions we make within the next few months will impact our region for years to come.

PROBLEMS

What do we know?

We know that Suffolk County is in a troubled state today.

We know that young people have been leaving our region at record rates for 20 years in search of opportunity and in search of a place to live other than their parents basement.

We know that businesses are relocating to other parts of the country because of the crushing burden of costs in our region. 

We know that Suffolk County is facing the greatest fiscal crisis in its history.

Six weeks ago, I was in this chamber before the Budget Committee Chaired by Legislator Lou D'Amaro.  I was joined by members of my Fiscal Task Force.  I tasked these independent fiscal experts with informing my administration, this body and Suffolk County residents with the true state of our County’s finances.  I did so because I felt that in the past we have spent far too much time focused on debating the size of the problem than how to fix it.

After weeks of analyzing our County’s finances, our fiscal assumptions and our costs, the Task Force provided a picture of the real state of our finances.  And the truth is worse than any of us could have imagined.

After being told the 2012 budget was balanced, we were all stunned to learn that 2011 wasn’t even in balance.  The 2011 budget year ended in a deficit of more than $60 million, the first time Suffolk County ended a year in deficit in 20 years.  And we now know that the 2012 budget is more than $140 million out of balance and the gap for 2013 grows to more than $300 million.  The worst part of this half a billion dollar gap is that it doesn't even include the hundreds of County positions scheduled for layoff in less than 3 months.

The Fiscal Task Force highlighted the fact that for several years Suffolk County has been running an operational deficit which has been papered over by one-shot revenues. The fact that 2011 ran a deficit despite tapping several one-shot revenues emphasizes the depth of our operational deficit and is a major reason why Suffolk County was downgraded by Moody’s Investor Services and placed on watch by two other ratings firms.

This fiscal crisis includes a cash flow crisis.  We are literally running out of cash to run county government because our reserves have been almost completely depleted.  As a result, this Legislature, at my request, authorized the executive branch to issue what is called a Revenue Anticipation Note, which will allow us to borrow up to $90 million against anticipated revenues.   It is the first time in decades that Suffolk County has had to issue a RAN and we're one of only two counties in the state of New York to issue a RAN during this most recent economic downturn.  Here is the thing about a RAN.  You have to pay it back fully within a year so in order to have the cash to pay it back and avoid a default we have no choice, we must make the difficult and painful decisions now if we are to avoid a financial calamity next year. 

This is the reality of where we find ourselves today.  There are two ways to deal with reality, you can embrace it or you can deny it.  We will not deny reality, nor will we hide from it by kicking the can down the road.  The can has been kicked for far too long and we are at the end of the road.

I am honored to be in this chamber tonight because I have always had great respect for this institution.  In my mind, the Suffolk County Legislature has been a model legislature in the state of New York because you have a history of working together in a bipartisan fashion to solve problems.  And now we face this great crisis.  And now everyone is looking to us-me, the 18 members of this legislature and our countywide elected officials to come together to solve this problem.  I have no doubt that we will do just that.

So, we know the problems, let’s talk about the solutions.

We have taken immediate action to get our finances under control.

The day the Budget Taskforce issued its report I declared a financial emergency in Suffolk County and cut agency funds by 10%. We also instituted new, stringent guidelines to better monitor and curtail use of overtime.

And working together with members of this legislative body we have already put together Phase One of our mitigation plan approximately $160 million.

I am a big believer that leadership must come from the top and that the best way to lead is by example.  I will not ask others to make sacrifices or to do more with less without being willing to do so myself. 

When I arrived on the 12th floor of the Dennison building a little over three months ago, the hallways by my office were jam-packed with desks.  Those halls are empty today because those desks are no longer needed.  I have 30% fewer staff in the executive's office and 20% fewer management positions throughout the government than the County had just a year ago.  I did not complain nor did I go back to this legislature to ask that they restore positions.  I told my staff that we would do what I have long preached, that in government today we must learn to do more with less. 

Doing more with less is also why I have taken a pay cut.  I voluntarily reduced my salary by $21,000 a year and $4,000 less than the County Executive made last year.  And that salary will not go up this year or the year after because I will freeze my salary and members of my executive management staff will freeze their salaries through 2013.

When I took office, I was surprised to learn that the County Executive’s office has seven cars assigned to it, including a Crown Victoria.  At a time when Child Protective Service workers don’t have enough vehicles there is no reason why seven vehicles should be sitting in the County Executive's office.  In the next few weeks, we will be auctioning off some of those cars, including the County Executive’s Crown Victoria and putting others back into the general fleet for higher priority uses.

We also know that we can no longer afford to do things the way they’ve always been done.  In the history of Suffolk County, no employee has ever paid directly for any portion of their health insurance.  That ends now.  Tomorrow, members of my executive management staff begin contributing between 15 to 25 percent towards the cost of their health insurance.

For most residents of Suffolk County, paying into health care is not a sacrifice; it is a fact of life.  And most residents have been scraping by, fighting to make ends meet and paying rising taxes with stagnant wages or fixed incomes.  Government cannot be immune to the challenges taxpayers face.

The actions that I take tomorrow are intended to send a clear message that we are all in this crisis together, we will all sacrifice together, and we will also emerge stronger together.

We have begun sitting down at the bargaining table with our county unions and talking with them about the role they can play in saving Suffolk County.  All too often, the interests of taxpayers and labor are framed as pitted against one another.  This is wrong.  Those around our country who have criticized public employees saying they are less than effective or that you can't collectively bargain with them, these people are wrong.  I can tell you as Babylon Town Supervisor for 10 years that we accomplished amazing things with our public employees.  And as Suffolk County Executive these past three months I have already begun to see the wonderful work that our public employees are doing now and the incredible potential we have to do great things.  To our public employees, there is no doubt that these are difficult days.  It is painful to see friends and colleagues lose their jobs as we are experiencing this year.  But this experience should make us more determined than ever to work together to make the sacrifices necessary for Suffolk County to live within its means and avoid even more difficult cuts in the future. 

PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT

When we talk about living within our means, again we must lead by example.  As I campaigned last year for this office, I talked about my top two priorities in office—Performance Management and Economic Development.

Performance Management is necessary to make sure that government is operating at peak efficiency and doing more with less.  Investing in Economic Development is critical to our County’s future.

With dedicated County employees losing their jobs, I refused to go back to the legislature to ask for more management positions.  So I made the difficult decision of letting 12 county attorneys go, freeing the budget to create performance management and economic development teams without adding to the bottom line.

We recently named a Deputy County Executive for Performance Management, and we have been working with Legislator Rob Calarco, Chairman of the Government Operations Committee and Legislator Tom Cilmi, a longtime advocate for performance management, on this new initiative.  I worked with them and Legislators Kara Hahn and Sara Anker to modernize an antiquated permitting process in the health and public works departments.  Our new performance management team consists of budget, technology and operations people and their mission is to work with our public employees to examine how we can deliver higher quality services at a lower cost to taxpayers. 

A goal of performance management is to make sure we have an environment where our dedicated employees are prepared, capable and able to perform.  We need to make sure they have the leadership that allows them to be more productive and that they have the tools they need to get the job done.

While the salaries paid to the members of our performance management team will not add to the budget, the work they will do will save taxpayers millions.  This team will be able to sprint out of the starting blocks because they are being given a roadmap by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have been working with Stony Brook University to examine the current state of operations in County government.  I want to thank this bipartisan group for the great work they have been doing-- Legislator Ed Romaine, Majority Leader DuWayne Gregory, Legislator Lynn Nowick and Legislator Kara Hahn. The committee is led by Eric Kopp, one of my top deputies and a 12 year veteran of the administration of Republican County Executive Bob Gaffney.  In writing their report, the Committee relied to a great extent on the outstanding work of Republican Comptroller Joe Sawicki and the many performance audits completed by his team.  The bottom line is making government more efficient is not a partisan issue, it is about protecting taxpayers and doing the right thing.

ECONOMIC GROWTH

While we focus on making County government more efficient and protecting taxpayers, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the best long term solution to our fiscal problems and the surest way to create a more prosperous Suffolk County is to grow our economy.  I want to thank the members of the Suffolk County Legislature for your unanimous support to fold the Planning Department into a new Department of Economic Development and Planning.

This move is not about moving around boxes on an organizational chart, it is about making sure Suffolk County government has the resources and the expertise to facilitate private sector economic growth by leveraging the incredible assets we have in this region. And thanks to the Legislature for empowering this department, we were able to land a top-flight private sector leader to run the department, our new commissioner and Deputy County Executive for Economic Development Joanne Minieri.  Joanne understands how to build consensus with local communities to advance good projects and create jobs.  This sends a clear message that Suffolk County is open for business.

We will leverage our world-class assets like Stony Brook University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory and partner with the Long Island Association led by Kevin Law to make our region a high-tech leader through Innovate Suffolk.  I want to work with Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko, Chairman of the Suffolk County Supervisors Association and all of our towns to develop a more uniform and streamlined permitting process and to create a new Innovation Zoning category.  Suffolk cannot retain and grow new businesses if we do not have low-cost and accessible places to put them. Working with towns, we can identify publicly owned parcels that are currently off the tax rolls to create Innovation Zones, helping us to create America's next “Research Triangle" right here in Suffolk County.

Despite the difficulties that we face, with the establishment of these performance management and economic development teams, we have begun to lay the foundation for a more prosperous future in Suffolk County.

And we have done more than this. 

RELATIONSHIP WITH NEW YORK STATE

Just as I promised I would do, we have reestablished a positive relationship with New York State.  After years of Suffolk County fighting with the state and our taxpayers losing, we have worked with our Senate and Assembly delegations and Governor Andrew Cuomo to deliver real results for Suffolk County taxpayers. 

One of my first actions was to work with Sheriff Vincent DeMarco to reopen the lines of communication with the New York State Commission on Corrections which allowed us to reinstate variances that will save Suffolk County taxpayers more than $3 million this year alone.

Thanks to legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Sweeney and Senator John Flanagan we were able to prevent the OTB Corporation from going out of business, saving hundreds of jobs and over $1 million in annual revenue to the county.  Legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Sweeney and Senator Owen Johnson will give the County an additional 50 Red Light cameras that will help increase public safety while bringing in additional revenue to the County. 

We are also working with Assemblyman Phil Ramos and Senator Lee Zeldin to create a Traffic Violations Bureau similar to Nassau County, where we can adjudicate traffic violations, which will help us better deploy resources, remove a major burden from the district court system and produce approximately $15 million per year for Suffolk County. 

And legislation has also been introduced by Senator Johnson and Assemblyman Steve Englebright on legislation to authorize one Video Lottery Terminal location in Suffolk County.  This would produce an estimated $40 million for Suffolk County school districts, create hundreds of local jobs and produce more than $25 million for Suffolk County.

I also have to acknowledge Governor Andrew Cuomo for his support on this legislation and to thank him for the steady leadership he has provided for our state.  Among his many accomplishments since taking office less than 16 months ago, I want to commend the Governor for putting together the bipartisan coalition that created a 2 percent property tax cap, which is the most important initiative to drive down costs and save taxpayer dollars in our state's history.  Many municipalities across our state have voted to override the property tax cap.  This will not happen in Suffolk County.  Despite the enormous deficit we face, we will live within the tax cap, we will protect taxpayers.

POLICE

Just as I promised I would do, I have taken the politics out of police work in this County.  The men and woman of law enforcement in this county who risk their lives to protect our communities deserve, at a minimum, not to be used as political pawns.  In these first 100 days of my administration we have made great strides in law enforcement.   Under the leadership of Acting Commissioner Edward Webber and Chief of Department Jim Burke, we have taken major steps to refocus our law enforcement community on the two greatest challenges it faces, prescription drug abuse and gang violence.   I was proud to stand with Legislator Kate Browning, Chair of the Public Safety Committee and Legislator William Spencer in Huntington Station to announce that we were putting gang officers back in our local precincts where they belong.  To the families facing the pain and loss caused by prescription drug abuse and to the communities suffering under the reality of gang violence, I want you to know that the Suffolk County Police Department is now focused on solving these problems. 

We have renewed our commitment to community based policing and we have implemented intelligence led policing, and in this short period of time the results have been impressive.  We are not just responding to crime anymore, we are now aggressively tracking criminals down by analyzing trends and patterns.  I want to thank our District Attorney Tom Spota, whose professionalism and integrity have provided the model for how law enforcement should be conducted.  The District Attorney recently announced the prosecution of a man charged with committing multiple armed robberies.  In his announcement he cited the outstanding work of the Suffolk County Police Department.  I couldn't agree with him more.

BROWNFIELDS - LAND BANK

Working together with the legislature in a bipartisan manner, we have already taken the first step towards addressing a longstanding blight on our communities, brownfields, by establishing a land bank that can help redevelop these properties and get them back on the tax rolls.

HEALTH CENTER

We have also passed an innovative public-private partnership for Hudson River Health Care to take over the Elsie Owens facility in Coram which had been threatened with closure but will now provide enhanced services at a lower cost to taxpayers. 

So those are a few of the things we have accomplished in these first 100 days.  Now I am not going to get into a long list of new initiatives that you normally hear in these addresses because my message and our focus is simple, we need to make government work and grow our economy so we can protect taxpayers and strengthen families. 

WILDFIRES

We are facing many challenges in this County, but I remain certain of our success because we will face these challenges together.  WE DO THAT in Suffolk County. It is part of the character of this community.  It is a trait that was on full display last week when our first responders rushed to the scene of wildfires in Ridge and Manorville and worked together to prevent a greater disaster.  Multiple agencies from Brookhaven and Riverhead Towns, Suffolk County and New York State worked together seamlessly with our volunteer firefighters to put down that fire. 

Tonight, representing the first responder community we have Suffolk County Fire Rescue and Emergency Services Commissioner Joe Williams, Chief Elio Zapparetta of the Manorville Fire Department and Third Assistant Chief Michael Gray of the Ridge Fire Department. I am also thrilled that Manorville Fire Commissioner Bill Hille Jr. who was injured in the blaze is with us here tonight.  I also want to recognize Suffolk County Police Officers from our Aviation Unit which played a critical role in fighting this fire.  Chief Zapparetta and Chief 1ST Assistant Chief Steven Gray joined me in the police helicopter at different points during the fire and the information they were able to obtain by utilizing these air resources helped them to deploy their resources more effectively. I also want to thank Governor Cuomo for the pivotal state resources he provided and for personally coming to Suffolk County last week to inspect the damage firsthand in order to expedite the Declaration of Emergency.

The quick, determined and heroic actions of our firefighters stopped a disaster from becoming a catastrophe.  Their actions saved lives and property and while it sometimes takes a disaster of this magnitude to remind us of their heroism, let us never forget that these volunteers take time from their families each and every night to ensure the safety of all of our families.  Ladies and gentleman, please join me in acknowledging the sacrifices made by our volunteer firefighters and EMS workers each and every day.

BILL LINDSAY

We are facing our challenges together.  Recently, one of our own announced that he is facing a great personal challenge, our Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay.  Despite his health issues, he continues to serve our county with great passion and dedication.  When Bill completes his term he will be the longest serving Presiding Officer in the history of our county.  With no disrespect intended to his predecessors, I believe he will also go down as the finest public servant ever to hold that position.  Bill, I know I speak for every resident in this county when I say that we are with you and we thank you.

So, what is the State of Suffolk County?  I don’t believe it can be summarized in a single word.  We have challenges, but we also stand united to meet them.  We are facing the greatest fiscal crisis in our county’s history, yet we have assets that would be the envy of any county in the nation. 

I see great things in our future and that is what I am focusing on.  For me, personally, the most important thing that has happened in these first 100 days is the birth of my son, Michael, just under one month ago.  My wife, Tracey and I are now blessed to have 3 beautiful kids and I want them to have a great future in Suffolk County.  At the end of the day I know that what is most important to all of us is our family.  Although most of you in Suffolk County are still getting to know me, what you should know is this, what motivates me each and every day is what we can do to build a better future for all our families.  Despite the problems, despite the difficulties that we face today, trust me when I tell you that the future of Suffolk County is bright. 

Thank you very much.  May God bless Suffolk County and most importantly may God bless all of the troops serving our country in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.   

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