Steve Bellone’s Half-Billion-Dollar Burden


 

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone sits at the head of the table as he presides over a meeting in his Hauppauge conference room. He has to figure out how to close a deficit that could be half a billion dollars. (Photo Courtesy of Suffolk County)


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When he launched his campaign last year, Bellone thought his likely opponent was going to be Levy, a feisty Democrat-turned-tenacious Republican. But Levy bowed out of the race after Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota found “irregularities” in his campaign financing, clearing the way for Suffolk Treasurer Angie Carpenter, a long-time Republican, to challenge Bellone.

Rehashing the election, let alone criticizing the current occupant of the position she’d once sought, is not Carpenter’s style. As she tells the Press: “I’m interested in getting this county on the right footing.… I’m pleased to be working with the county executive. He seems to be trying to handle it diligently. We’ve sat with the rating agencies as a financial team.”

Recently, Carpenter, who’s been Suffolk’s treasurer for seven years, joined the executive board of the New York State Government Finance Officers’ Association, which has helped her put Suffolk’s fiscal woes in perspective.

“We, as a county, are really no different from any other municipality across the country,” she says.

In the election campaign both Bellone and Carpenter ripped into Levy’s final year in office, slamming his budget for 2012, which was projected to come up $135 million short. On the stump Bellone called it “a fiscal mess.”

Carpenter said it was “the worst we’ve ever seen.” In his defense, Levy had proposed selling the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility to a private operator, which he claimed would have saved Suffolk almost $30 million, plus he wanted to lay off 710 employees, and have the remainder start contributing to their health care.

Reached at his new consulting business, Common Sense Strategies in Hauppauge, Levy remained firmly convinced he was right.

“Had the legislature just left my budget intact, with the closing of the nursing home and the laying off of the employees early on, they wouldn’t be facing the problems they face today,” Levy tells the Press. “In 2011, the main reason there was a shortfall was that I had budgeted savings from the nursing home’s closure. The legislature took the money from the savings to spend on their pet projects and then sued to stop the closure of the nursing home. It was not a tremendous revelation that you were going to have a problem at the end of the year.”

He scoffed at the findings of Bellone’s blue ribbon panel—“a New York City Democratically dominated committee,” he called it—because it estimated that Suffolk’s multi-year deficit could reach more than $530 million by 2013. “There’s no question that’s a make-believe figure,” Levy says scornfully, adding that it’s so arbitrarily high that the slightest measures the Bellone administration takes to reduce it “will be seen as being miraculous.”

Comptroller Sawicki, a Republican, doesn’t cut the former county executive any slack.

“Obviously in 2011 everything really hit home, and Steve Levy can’t run from that,” Sawicki tells the Press. “He was in office for all of 2011, and his 2011 budget was adopted in November 2010…. He may want to cast blame on the legislature and all that, but he was the micromanager of micromanagers!”

Paul Sabatino, Levy’s former deputy county executive, also did not let his old boss off the hook.

“Levy budgeted the sale from Foley that never took place,” he says. No friend of Levy’s, Sabatino says he wonders why the new county executive would have “the same people who did eight years of Levy’s budget doing his budgeting” considering their track record.

Bellone named Fred Pollert, who left the Levy administration in 2009, to be his chief fiscal deputy and kept Connie Corso, Levy’s budget director and campaign treasurer, as his budget director. Pollert was collecting a $132,996 state pension and needed a waiver from the state Civil Service Commission to get the $175,000 salary for his new full-time job.

Bellone defended the moves. “We made changes,” he says. “Fred Pollert left the [Levy] administration several years ago because he saw the direction things were headed in, and we brought him back. Nobody has more knowledge or expertise on the county budget than Fred…. We wanted somebody who could hit the ground running, and that’s what we’ve gotten.”

Few doubt Pollert’s expertise as a budget analyst, but his coming on board with such a highly compensated salary has raised eyebrows as the new county executive is confronting the most serious deficit in decades.

Other missteps Bellone has had to deal with are harder to ignore.

One “rookie mistake”—as Bellone later described it to Newsday–occurred in March when a 29-page memo prepared by Regina Calcaterra, his chief deputy, was leaked to some Suffolk lawmakers as well as The Wall Street Journal. It accused Levy of misleading the Wall Street bond agencies about the county’s finances by exaggerating revenue and underestimating expenses as well as accusing Corso of concealing or disguising negative budget data to bolster Levy’s gubernatorial ambitions. The memo called for the federal Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate, which it reportedly declined to do.

Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Central Islip) was shown about four pages of the memo but wasn’t given a full copy.

“It was poorly written,” says Montano, a former federal prosecutor. “It read like an indictment but there was no evidence. She had nothing.”

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