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Legislature agrees to waste taxpayer money to aid, abet illegals

by Valerie Burgher
Staff Writer (Newsday) - 3/21/01

With a sputtering national economy as a backdrop, , Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney yesterday used his state of the county address to propose a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax, a hiring moratorium and across-the-board spending cuts for county departments.

Meanwhile, the county legislature approved a hotly debated measure to allot $80,000 to Catholic Charities to construct a hiring hall for day laborers. The issue has divided the community in Farmingville, where laborers, many of them recent immigrants from Latin America, wait by the roadside for work.

During his address to the legislature's special session, Gaffney detailed for the first time Suffolk's none-too-rosy financial condition, which has been hurt by sagging sales tax revenues and high police costs.

"Much has changed since I last addressed you," Gaffney told the legislature.

"These are not times for people with weak stomachs. Difficult decisions must be made." What has changed is Suffolk's flush revenue stream. The county overestimated what it would realize last year in sales taxes and wound up with a $27-million budget shortfall, which will cascade into 2001 and beyond.

At the same time, costs for fringe benefits, health insurance and social services such as Medicaid have ballooned at an alarming rate, Gaffney said.

If the county were to take no action, Suffolk would have to find $113.9 million to $140 million in property taxes by 2002 to cover the costs of county operations, according to the legislature's budget review office and the county's budget director.

Part of Gaffney's strategy for avoiding such big tax hikes involves bringing the sales tax back to 8.5 percent, the level in effect before 1995. That would generate $52 million per year-close to the amount the county had taken from its current sales tax revenues to fund the police district.

Also, Gaffney said he would order county department heads to implement a "flexible hiring freeze" that would exempt only essential positions. Gaffney also directed departments to cut 25 percent of equipment and travel spending, 10 percent of supply spending and to institute cuts of 3 percent to 5 percent in spending for outside contracts.

Meanwhile, the discussion yesterday brought out a handful of residents eager to endorse or condemn the proposed hiring hall that would be used primarily by undocumented immigrant workers.

Debate among legislators was at some times heated as they discussed whether their funding of the hall could be legally challenged. Legislative counsel Paul Sabatino said he knew of no hiring halls being struck down in court.

"For everyday people, this is a good answer," Legis. Vivian Fisher (D-Stony Brook) said. "This is good legislation moving in a positive direction." Ultimately, the measure was approved by a vote of 12-2, with Allan Binder (R-Huntington) and Michael Caracciolo (R-Wading River) opposed.

No specific site was proposed for the hall.

Joseph Caracappa (R-Selden), who spearheaded two early resolutions to mitigate the day-laborer crisis, abstained yesterday, as did fellow Brookhaven Republicans Fred Towle of Shirley and Martin Haley of Rocky Point.

Haley opted not to support the resolution yesterday until he received information on the location of the hall. "I'm in favor of a solution," he said, "but the ones I've heard to date are insufficient." The legislature also approved a measure that would allow the county to seek legal action to break a lease it extended last year to landlord MLP Associates for maintenance of the Elsie Owens Health Center in Coram.

MLP has overseen the center for 22 years, but members of the legislature have said they do not believe the firm will be able to deliver the improvements outlined in the lease by the agreed-upon deadline.

A lawyer for the landlord said the county had no right to renege on its agreement with MLP and that the landlord, too, would consider legal action if the lease were not honored.

Staff writer J. Jioni Palmer contributed to this story.

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