The education of Suffolk Exec Steve Bellone – By George J. Marlin

The following appears in the September 13-19, 2013 issue of the Long Island Business News:

After 20 months in office, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has learned that the job he craved is not a glamorous or easy one.

It’s not easy because executives who take on a fiscal crisis must actually govern if they are to succeed. And governing means making tough but responsible decisions that, by their very nature, will anger large segments of the population – particularly public service unions.

Bellone has also learned that many of the cost-cutting ideas promoted by his predecessor, Steve Levy, are not as draconian as he portrayed them in the election campaign.

Hence, Bellone’s referendum to merge the county’s Comptroller and Treasury departments, which he vigorously opposed in 2011 and now looks like a prudent plan – one that, if approved by voters in November, will save over $800,000 a year.

Other Levy proposals Bellone has embraced include the closing of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility and billing the county’s 10 towns for a piece of their out-of-county community college tuitions. These two actions will trim the projected $180 million deficit for 2014 by about $15 million.

Bellone claims the difference between himself and Levy is that he has been able to advance these policies because he has a good relationship with the members of the County Legislature. He will soon learn, however, that such lovefests are short-lived, because legislators, unlike executives, are free to be irresponsible, because they’re not responsible for upholding or administering the many feckless laws and flawed contracts they approve.

A legislator having a cocktail with union leaders or lobbyists after a round of golf can easily agree to honor a request to vote for legislation the unions favor, regardless of its long-term fiscal consequences, because he will not be the person who must live with it. The passed “buck,” as President Harry Truman put it, winds up on the chief executive’s desk and becomes his problem.

To further his education on the mindset of legislators, Bellone should read “Mayor,” the memoir of New York City three-term Mayor Edward Koch. This former legislator admitted he learned what a chump he was in Congress only after he became the city’s magistrate:

“I have publicly stated and referred to myself as “Mayor Culpa” for having voted for programs in the Congress which added to the city spending. I neither knew nor cared at the time how those wonderful programs would be paid for and by whom. Indeed, I have summed up my responsibility by saying that if I had the power I would punish every member of Congress who participated in those days, and perhaps even today, with some of their mandates imposed on cities, by having them serve one year as mayor.”

Finally, Mr. Bellone will have to learn – if he hasn’t already – that there are limits to budget cuts and to tax and fee increases. Severe service cuts and excessive taxes compound fiscal problems by hastening economic decline and the erosion of the tax base.

If Suffolk County is to avoid falling into the fiscal abyss, Bellone will have to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, to fulfill his 2010 campaign pledge to help municipalities rein in costs by implementing genuine unfunded mandate relief.

And he must persuade the governor that if ever-rising county employee salary and benefit costs are to be contained, the Triborough Amendment – which provides that the provisions of a public employee contracts must remain in effect after the contract expires – must be repealed or significantly altered to favor elected officials and the taxpayers they represent.

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