Last month Bellone got Anthony Manetta, a 33-year-old Babylon political consultant who’d been a vice chairman of the Independence Party, appointed to be executive director of the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency, which can dole out sales tax exemptions and mortgage recording tax waivers, among other incentives. He replaces Bruce Ferguson, 64, who will leave at the end of August, after serving 27 years. He’s credited with helping steer Canon U.S.A. to Suffolk.
The move, as well as the IDA itself, has drawn criticism because it comes with an odor of patronage.
“Ferguson’s survived six county executives and his luck finally ran out,” says a well-connected former county official who did not wish to be identified because of his business with Suffolk. In a Newsday editorial Manetta was described as a “handpicked, poorly qualified, hometown choice,” as well as a sop to Frank MacKay, head of the Independence Party.
“I had very little to do with this,” MacKay tells the Press, adding that Manetta is “a young ball of fire and Suffolk’s lucky to have him.” He applauded the move and lauded the county executive. “Steve Bellone has done a fantastic job as supervisor and there’s nothing to indicate that he won’t do just as well as county executive. He’s doing things his way. He’s getting young, energetic people in there, and he’s not backing down to the old way of thinking.”
Bellone stands by his decision.
“It’s not a misstep,” the county exec says. “Look, I’m very clear on what I want to accomplish in terms of economic development. And we’re going to be rolling out our detailed economic plan in the next couple of weeks.”
If Sabatino had his way, he’d abolish the IDA.
“They’re crony capitalism at the worst,” he says. “The only people who can get to them are the politically connected. All they do is redistribute revenue and wealth from small businesses and residential taxpayers to those who have the connections.”
Ferguson doesn’t buy that description.
“For the 27 years I was there, I don’t think there was cronyism,” Ferguson tells the Press. “I don’t know what’s going to happen going forward.”
Even though he’s disappointed to be leaving his job, Ferguson says that the future looks bright for the county’s IDA with “probably eight or nine projects that have been approved and another four or five inquiries that are legitimate. So suddenly, we’re beginning to see a pickup in the activity out there.”
Another bright spot on the horizon is that sales tax revenue is up appreciably compared to last year.
“June a year ago, we received $13.8 million,” says Carpenter, the treasurer. “This year we received $15.2 million. That’s a 4.8 percent year-to-date increase…. Now we’re going into the tourist season. So we clearly have opportunities to generate more revenue.”
But unlike the recession of 20 years ago, when the county raised the sales tax twice in two years, making Suffolk consumers pay more when they shop is not on the table, according to New York State Senate Republicans, who would have to approve the request.
“From what I understand,” says Comptroller Sawicki, “Albany’s very reluctant to go along with a sales tax increase for either Nassau or Suffolk.”
A prominent Suffolk Republican familiar with the budget who asked not to be identified said that “Nassau and Suffolk should be joining together and saying that this is what we need to do because we can’t cut anymore. If we raise the sales tax rate from 8.65 to 8.75, we’d generate nearly $70 million more a year. That’s significant.”
Bellone wouldn’t say if he’d ask the State Legislature for help with this retail measure.
“Everybody’s looking for a silver bullet,” Bellone says. “The truth of the matter is that there’s not going to be one thing or two things; there are 25 things that need to be pieced together to put the county’s budget back in structural balance…. It involves difficult decisions, but that’s why I’ve tried to set the tone that we’re all in this together and that we all have to sacrifice together.”
When he became county executive, Bellone took a pay cut and started paying for his health insurance. He also cut the number of top aides from 38 to 27, and reduced executive department staff positions from 180 to 153. He recently asked his department heads to freeze non-mandated spending and cut nonprofit contract agencies by 5 percent as they begin producing their budgets for the fall.
Levy’s 2012 budget had called for 710 layoffs by July 1, but the legislature kept revising the number downward. It quickly went from 464 to 315, then 302, and then hit 260. The uncertainty couldn’t have been easy for anyone involved, especially the workers. And whether it will make a significant dent in the deficit remains to be seen, since one analysis found cutting 464 public jobs would only have saved $26 million. At one point even Bellone’s secretary was losing her job without him knowing it. Recently 30 security guards whose union jobs were about to be privatized won a stay in court.
Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay Lavalle thinks the layoffs are the wrong way to go.
“Steve Bellone has chosen to take the easy way out and lay off human beings rather than making the structural changes in Suffolk County government that are necessary to create a long-lasting change in our economy.”
His Democratic counterpart, Rich Schaffer, who replaced Bellone as Babylon Town supervisor, disagrees.
“The Republicans haven’t come up with any realistic revenues to pay for those employees they want to keep. They want to use phantom revenues that got us into the mess we’re in.”
Bellone argues he was left with few options.
“Nobody likes to do layoffs,” says Bellone. “It is the worst thing in the world that you have to do… [But] I’m not willing to simply add to the deficit in a way that ultimately is going to hurt taxpayers and hurt the county.”
LaValle maintains his lack of enthusiasm for the progress so far.
“I hate taking shots at him, but it is what it is,” says Lavalle, who recently played a round of golf with Bellone. “I like him as a person…. We definitely have different ideas about how government should run…. I’ve yet to see anything come out of this administration that will help move this economy along.”
To his credit, Bellone cites the legislature’s just-approved $21 million investment in a new capital program for the Ronkonkoma Hub plan involving an ambitious sewer project to help both Islip and Brookhaven reinvigorate development.
“It’s a great example of how the county can leverage its resources to help grow the economy,” Bellone says. “Now we expect that ultimately a district will be created that will fund the infrastructure costs but our ability to put it in the capital program means that the project can continue to move forward. And when you have two towns, [Brookhaven] Supervisor Mark Lesko and [Islip] Supervisor Tom Croci, who are working together to create this kind of development hub, that’s a tremendous thing, and the county should do everything it can to make that happen.”
Some observers across the county line sound envious when they look at Suffolk.
“It’s interesting to watch the difference between him and Ed Mangano,” says Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs. “Ed Mangano’s been playing with smoke and mirrors, and Steve Bellone is doing the job, using real old-fashioned arithmetic.”