Suffolk Closeup: County exec race heating up

On Election Day next month, Tuesday, Nov. 5, the leading political contest in Suffolk County will be for county executive. The incumbent, Democrat Steve Bellone, is being challenged by County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., a Republican.

County finances are the big issue.

As a Kennedy posting on Facebook declares: “Steve Bellone has been a fiscal disaster for Suffolk County. Under his tenure … Big Tax Bellone has raised taxes and fees by over $200 million to pay for his $3.11 billion budget.”

Mr. Bellone, meanwhile, is stating on Facebook: “My 2020 Recommended Operating Budget focuses on one thing: Protecting the taxpayer … Freezes General Fund property taxes for 8th straight year … Complies with 2% Property Tax Cap … Without any new fees or one-shot revenues.”

The “Big Tax Bellone” nickname Mr. Kennedy is using harkens back to a situation in Suffolk three decades ago when incumbent County Executive Patrick Halpin, a Democrat, was labeled by the GOP as “High-Tax Halpin.” (The principal difference in the nicknames: a hyphen used in the one for Mr. Halpin.)

The strategy of describing Mr. Halpin (now chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority) as “High-Tax Halpin” and ripping into an increase he arranged in the county property tax was effective. He was defeated in his run for re-election by Republican Robert Gaffney.

Will a political battle involving the handling of county finances hurt the incumbent county executive again? How effective might it be considering the extreme difference in the campaign chests of Mr. Bellone — $2 million — and Mr. Kennedy’s, just over $200,000?

Posting on Facebook is free. We will, however, see the contest fought with direct mail, newspaper and radio ads and TV commercials. Polished TV spots for Mr. Bellone have just begun to air. Paid political advertising, of course, costs — a lot.

The “Big Tax Bellone” and “High-Tax Halpin” nicknames illuminate how Suffolk government has gotten into financial difficulties with now hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that the county must repay.

Back in 1988, Mr. Halpin was just elected county executive, and to deal with county fiscal problems his administration moved for an increase in the county property tax. This was done in a less than transparent way with the true amount of the hike acknowledged only at the last moment.

The Halpin property tax jump struck a raw nerve politically in Suffolk.

Mr. Halpin never asked for a property tax increase again, but wasn’t forgiven by voters three years later when he lost re-election. And increasingly, Suffolk County executives have favored depending on sales tax money — usually small yet repeated hits for residents — over a politically-sensitive single amount due on the yearly tax bills.

Now half the budget of county government is based on sales tax money. Borrowing has ensued when sales tax dollars haven’t come in as anticipated. Meanwhile, the sales tax rate has climbed upwards to today a combined total in Suffolk of 8.625%.

Also, Mr. Kennedy has repeatedly, as the county’s fiscal watchdog as comptroller and before that as a county legislator, charged Mr. Bellone with fiscal mismanagement.

Mr. Kennedy’s current Facebook posting states: “As a result of fiscal mismanagement, Suffolk County has declared 7 fiscal emergencies and received 7 bond downgrades. Suffolk County is now issuing JUNK BONDS!”

Moody’s Investment Service cited Suffolk’s “deteriorated financial position” in its downgrading of county bonds in 2018. Last year, too, the county’s non-partisan Budget Review Office reported Suffolk government has accumulated $883 million in debt to pay for operating expenses over the past decade.

Mr. Bellone denies financial mismanagement and says on his county executive website: “When I first took office, the county was in financial ruins, and we have been making significant strides to implement structural reforms ever since. We are laser-focused on creating a new financial future for Suffolk County.”

Mr. Bellone of North Babylon is seeking a third four-year term. He previously was Babylon Town supervisor. Mr. Kennedy of Nesconset has held positions in Suffolk government since 1986, including 10 years as a legislator, and served in the offices of county executive and county clerk. He was elected comptroller in 2014 and was re-elected last year. Both men are attorneys.

An indication that campaign chest size might not be all-important: when Mr. Kennedy ran for comptroller in 2014 he defeated Democrat James Gaughran (now a state senator) despite being outspent $800,000 to $100,000.