Turn the tide on the county debt burden

The Smithtown News

For the duration of the administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy taxpayers have been subjected to a campaign of budgetary rhetoric with the county legislature that is replete with name calling, finger pointing and, on occasion, an immature-- almost childish -- exchange of charges and counter charges about Suffolk County finances.

The end result of all this is a Democrat-turned-Republican county executive who sells himself as a fiscal conservative worth of higher statewide office who contends that he has been hamstrung by a big spending legislature. It sells. The Suffolk County Legislature is still perceived by the public as bumbling, while Mr. Levy is considered a watchdog of the public purse.

All the rhetorical infighting between the county executive and county legislature can only be sorted out at the polls in November. For Smithtown property owners, however, when tax bills arrive in the mail it's all the same, they have to pay the rate imposed by Suffolk County government.

A look at the tax burden put upon Smithtown property owners over the past half decade, and the one perception that has to be dispelled is that there is anything fiscally conservative coming from county government. Putting aside for the moment who is more to blame -- the county executive or the legislature -- an evaluation of the numbers show that the few dollars taxpayers have saved during the Levy years in property taxes is more than offset by a long term debt burden. That is an unavoidable conclusion, and it is a disturbing direction for the county government to be moving.

Consider these numbers. In the six years that Mr. Levy has been the county executive the general fund property tax bill for the average home assessed at $4000 has been reduced by $24. There were increases in two of those six years, $3.10 and $8.10, offset by four years of decreases: $2.15, $19.41, $13.34, $0.30. On the county police line of the tax bill, the tax bill for the average Smithtown home during the Levy years has been $38.66, marked by three years of decreases, $14.84, $17.10, $7.96 offset by three years of increases: $8.01, $29.84, 40.68.

The net result of the average Smithtown home is that while the Levy administration has been in office their county tax bill has increased by $14.66. It's fantastic, an annual average of $2.40 a year, a modest price to pay for county government and police protection, and a level of property tax increase that is well below most other levels of government on the property tax bill.

A look at the gross outstanding debt of the county, though, shows that taxpayers will pay more tomorrow for the government of today. During the Levy years Suffolk County debt has increased by nearly 100%, from $650 million when the took over to $1.3 billion today. For decades to come -- the next generation -- taxpayers will be paying off the debt load taken on by today's county government. Mr. Levy points his finger at the legislature, and perhaps it is to blame, but, again, when the tax bill arrives in the mail its all the same for the Smithtown homeowner -- they have to pay.

The Town of Smithtown government, under the fiscally conservative leadership of Supervisor Patrick Vecchio, has come to have the lowest debt burden on Long Island if looked at per capita. With $14.6 million in debt and 120,397 people, the per capita debt in Smithtown is $121. The next closest Long Island town is Hempstead with $313.3 million dollars in debt and $766,878 people for per capita debt of $409. It is a statistic looked at by municipal credit rating agencies and it is a category in which Smithtown shines.

In contrast to Smithtown, Suffolk County is heading down a slippery slope with debt. The 100% increase from just over $600 million to $1.3 billion is marked by a per capita increase from $450 six years ago to $863 now, an increase of more than $400 for every man, woman and child in Suffolk County. It puts into a different perspective the $14.66 saved by the average homeowner over the last six years. Paying a couple of dollars more now and not having to pay off $1.3 billion later, with interest, might have been the more fiscally prudent approach.

Nonetheless, the numbers indicate clearly that Suffolk County has to get its debt burden under control. The county has to slow down its borrowing habits and apply a more controlled approach.

In Smithtown, Supervisor Vecchio has controlled debt through a combination of outright not borrowing anything for several years at a time with a policy of only borrowing in one year the amount of debt that has been retired that year. Of the town's $14.6 million debt burden $3 million is an obligation of the State of New York, so the real per capita debt obligation in Smithtown is even lower than the $121. Mr. Vecchio has applied an arch conservative approach to borrowing.

Perhaps rather than pointing fingers at one another, county lawmakers should go see Mr. Vecchio and seek guidance about how to hold the line on debt. Seeking sage advice from this elder statesman is probably a good idea. If not, county officials have to at least get their heads together about capping county debt and paying for government as they go.

To save $24 in general fund taxes over six years so that a politician can claim to be a fiscal conservative worthy of higher office is not worth putting our children on the hook, weather the legislature is to blame or not.