by Steve Levy
Newly sworn-in Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine gave a rousing inaugural speech to kick off his incoming administration. His success will be ours.
Incoming executives at the town and county levels today have the good fortune of taking the helm when local governments are flush with money, thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars given nearly unconditionally from the federal government to localities during Covid.
But Mr. Romaine wisely noted that, in the year prior to Covid, Suffolk was ranked as the most fiscally stressed county in the state. His predecessor inherited a balanced budget (contrary to the claims that there was a deficit) and a record- high bond rating, but faced an economic storm due to a crippling recession. The national economic downturn, coupled with a huge police contract and use of one-shots such as selling the fully paid-off Dennison building (only to lease it back), led to numerous rating agency downgrades that Mr. Romaine has referenced.
As noted by local economist Martin Cantor, the county’s likely fiscal Armageddon was avoided thanks to the feds pumping in over $500 million in grants. Moreover, the supercharging of the economy with $6 trillion in federal checks sent to the public caused hyperinflation and unprecedented spending that brought in hundreds of millions in unanticipated sales tax dollars to the county coffers.
Those one-shots will run out, so implementing efficiencies is essential.
Mr. Romaine wisely stressed the building of sewers, supporting economic development and cleaning our environment. Good priorities, but let’s hope these measures could be pursued without seeking a sales tax increase when so many hundreds of millions of dollars are available in the present budget due to COVID surpluses.
The best thing to spend one-shot revenues on is a one-time, non-recurring expenditure such as constructing a sewer. That’s preferable to adding positions or programs that will have to be supported every year thereafter.
The executive chose wisely in placing my former chief deputy county executive, Kevin Law, and Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter to guide his transition.
Hopefully, the team can share with the executive the success we had in 2004 in creating a Workforce Housing Department that provided grants for municipalities willing to build up their housing stock in downtown corridors. It was remarkably successful, as witnessed with Patchogue’s renaissance, and dovetails nicely with Mr. Romaine’s housing policies.
It’s also hoped that the new executive can implement efficiencies by reconstituting The Long Island Purchasing Consortium, which was discontinued after my tenure. It brought together the two counties, as well as towns, fire departments and schools to coordinate their high-volume purchases. Having different jurisdictions buy 1,000 cars at one time gets you a much better discount than buying ten at a time.
We’re also happy to see the search for a qualified police commissioner. We cannot have a repeat of a rogue police leader being allowed to dismantle the FBI task force I created. Kicking out the feds led to a slowdown in the Gilgo search and a reconstituting of MS-13 throughout the county (which led to the murders of dozens of Suffolk youth).
And to build on his goal to further protect our children, the new executive can reinstate my policy of requiring automatic backfills for vacancies in Child Protective Services.
Finally, it is hoped the new executive will be an ardent advocate for Suffolk residents. There was a dire need to push back against Governor Hochul’s contentious plans to overrule local zoning, impose an MTA tax on Suffolk businesses and enact congestion pricing fees. Hopefully, Mr. Romaine will lead that charge. He can start by replacing Suffolk’s present rep on the MTA board who, remarkably, voted in favor of congestion pricing that will crush Suffolk commuters.
As noted above, there’s a lot of breathing room for executives when so much federal money is sitting in reserves. But that luxury will be short-lived. Hopefully, Mr. Romaine’s intentions to pursue structural efficiencies will come to fruition.
Steve Levy served as Suffolk County executive from 2004-2011.