For the 12th floor of the H. Lee Denison Building in Hauppauge, it’s the changing of the Steves: one Steve is leaving as another Steve is coming in. For Suffolk the unlikely transition between the two county executives with the same first name but quite different personalities could mark a historic juncture as the county is facing an unprecedented financial calamity that threatens this region’s stability.
Steve Levy, the outgoing county executive who switched from being a Democrat to run for governor in the Republican primary last year, says that for eight-straight years he’s introduced a budget that froze or cut general fund taxes. He claims he made the tough decisions that “had to be made” to keep Suffolk on a firm fiscal footing.
Steve Bellone, the county executive-elect, would have challenged Levy in November had the incumbent not been forced by District Attorney Tom Spota to turn over his $4-million war chest in March and agree not to run for re-election for reasons we have yet to learn. Instead, Bellone, the outgoing Democratic Babylon Town supervisor, faced off against Republican County Treasurer Angie Carpenter, the first woman to run for the top job as well as hold her current one. She lost the election, but she remains in county government, serving in a role crucial to the financial health of the county.
Fortunately for Suffolk residents, the campaign between Bellone and Carpenter never got nasty, and they presumably can sit at a conference table together to solve the county’s problems. Whether the new county executive can forge a good relationship with the legislature remains to be seen. They all have their work cut out for them.
“I respected Angie before the race, and I continue to respect her,” Bellone says. “We’re all in the fire here.” He says he spoke with her after the election about the county’s dire fiscal condition.
“They may not be best buds,” says Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), the legislature’s minority caucus leader, “but I think there’ll be mutual acknowledgement and respect.”
Carpenter declined to comment.
Bellone says that the county legislature “improved” the last budget submitted by Levy, “but it’s still a mess. We’re still dealing with a huge crisis here.”
He doesn’t think Levy has been forthright with the public.
“Look, the county executive submitted a budget that at a minimum was $135 million out of balance,” Bellone says. “And if you’re saying it’s balanced, then you’re not honestly dealing with the crisis.”
Bellone intends to appoint an independent financial analyst with no ties to county government who can give him an “honest” picture of “exactly how bad it is.”
“Steve Bellone is going to bring a real breath of fresh air to the financial picture of this county,” says County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, Jr., a Republican. “He’s got to make the tough decisions, but he can do it with all of us working together. You’d have these meetings with Levy and [as soon as] you’d leave the room, he’d be issuing a press release that [you’re a] bad guy…and he’s the only good guy.”
Sawicki says that Levy is “not right” to say he left the county in good shape and the legislature made things worse. Levy declined to comment for this article.
“We’ve seen a serious spiral down in the last year and a half of Levy’s tenure,” Sawicki says. “When things are good, it’s all about him. Now that things have taken a turn for the worse under his watch, he blames the legislature.”
Based on revenue projections for 2012, the comptroller warns, “We’re showing for the first time in 20 years that come April we’re going to be out of cash.”
On the campaign trail, Bellone said he wanted a leaner government—and that’s what he’s certainly going to get. He’ll have fewer top aides than his predecessor, from 38 to 27, and fewer executive department staffers, from 180 to 153. County employees will be doing more with less, too.
Levy’s 2012 budget had called for 710 layoffs, but the county legislature, in a bipartisan vote of 16 to 2, overrode Levy’s veto of their revised budget—which only funds the county for six months, leaving the rest up to Bellone—and whittled the layoffs down to 88, among them some working in the highest-paid job categories. The hundreds who remain on the public payroll face the added uncertainty of knowing their salaries and wages are guaranteed for only the next six months. The time frame is intended to give Bellone some breathing room.
“It’s Bellone’s job to come in and right this ship that’s gone astray,” says Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Central Islip). “We have done…the best we can with what we had to work with. This was a grueling budget process. We put positions back in the budget for six months to give the new county executive the opportunity to come in and decide [where] he wants to go.”
As Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D-Holbrook) put it, “The election’s over and it’s time to govern. We need everybody pulling in the same direction.”