For a county leader grappling with a budget that could be half a billion dollars in the red by the end of next year, Steve Bellone still seems to be enjoying himself.
“Certainly the problems are greater than we had imagined,” says Bellone, the former Democratic Babylon town supervisor who won the Suffolk County executive race last fall. “But I am actually having a great time.”
His grin was hard to dispute. Perhaps it’s due to his brief reprieve from diaper duty—his newborn son Michael Jack is almost 14 weeks old, and he and his wife Tracey also have two rambunctious daughters, Mollie, 2, and Katie, 4—or maybe it was the temporary change in venue. He was sitting comfortably in a richly appointed gallery at The Carltun in Eisenhower Park, across the county line in Nassau, when he spoke with this reporter last week.
Bellone could afford to be relaxed—for the moment. So far, Suffolk’s fiscal problems haven’t created a clamor for a state control board like the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which is making life miserable for Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano. But if Bellone and the Suffolk legislature don’t act soon, they know they could be headed down the same lonesome road. And his six-month honeymoon since he took office is about to end as he faces a growing chorus of naysayers eager to point out his rookie mistakes and profit from his missteps.
Wall Street has already put Suffolk County on notice. Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Suffolk’s short-term borrowing last December and dropped its long-term debt rating two notches this March as county lawmakers approved an emergency resolution to issue up to $90 million in revenue-anticipation notes just to cover the payroll.
In January, Bellone learned that the 2011 budget was not in balance as his predecessor, County Executive Steve Levy, had insisted. Instead, it was some $33 million in the hole, according to estimates of a blue ribbon panel of financial experts Bellone had appointed, with much fanfare, to crunch the numbers. After Suffolk County Comptroller Joe Sawicki Jr. closed the books a few weeks later, the final figure nearly doubled to $60.5 million. The deficit marked Suffolk’s first year-end gap in more than 20 years.
“We’re dealing with a crisis right now,” Bellone admits. “In fact, every day is really crisis management in the county, but I’ve always thought long-term.”
The question is: How much time does he really have left to figure this out?