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NY suburban county tackles growing budget deficit

HAUPPAUGE, N.Y. (AP) -- A suburban New York county wants to spread out the cost of rising pension benefits over 10 years as one way to help slash a budget deficit that a task force has said could grow to $530 million by the end of 2013.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who took office in January, announced an initial plan Monday that would help reduce the shortfall by $160 million, and he indicated further changes are coming.

"We know we cannot tax our way to fiscal health and the economy won't just rebound overnight and solve this for us," Bellone said in a statement. "Everyone in Suffolk County government will need to make tough choices and sacrifice together to get our county back on sound fiscal standing."

Bellone said the plan calls for spreading out the cost of pension benefits over 10 years, a move that he estimates could save the county more than $66 million. Many aspects of the plan still require legislative approval, but leaders indicated support for Bellone's proposal.

Bellone also is seeking approval from the state Legislature to install 50 more red light cameras that record traffic violations, which could boost income from fines. He said he also wants to establish a county-run traffic violations bureau, which would allow Suffolk to keep as much as $13.2 million in additional revenues annually from fines.

A task force last month estimated that because of rising pension costs, and shortfalls in sales tax and other revenues, the county could see a deficit that was $33 million in 2011 balloon to as large as $530 million by the end of 2013 if nothing is done.

Last month, Wall Street expressed concern about the finances of the suburban New York county. Moody's Investors Service has reduced the county's bond rating from Aa2 to A1. The rating is still considered above average, but Moody's spokesman David Jacobson said the agency has also given Suffolk bonds a negative outlook. Jacobson says the drop is related to the county's tight cash flow and a deficit in its operating budget.

The county plans a $1 per ride fare increase on county buses. Consolidating services and other efficiency improvements could save as much as $16 million annually, a spokeswoman for Bellone said. No layoffs are included in the proposal announced Monday, but Bellone has yet to rule that out as an option in the future.

William J. Lindsay, the presiding officer of the county legislature, called the proposals "an important first step" for the county, which is home to the ritzy Hamptons millionaires on eastern Long Island, but also struggles with gang violence, street crime and other issues in other communities.