Remember The Amityville Horror, the 1979 hair-on-edge thriller that would become one of America’s most popular scary movies ever? The horror may soon be returning, this time in real life.
Amityville the movie revolves around an actual 1974 mass murder that took place in Amityville the village, a suburb east of New York City in Long Island’s Suffolk County. The 23-year-old perpetrator of that massacre killed six family members and left behind, the movie relates, a house full of troubled spirits who would terribly spook the home’s next owners.
That house still stands in Amityville, and the folks living in it these days now have a real reason to feel spooked. Suffolk County, one of the largest suburban political jurisdictions in the entire United States, appears on the verge of a massive meltdown in public services.
The 1.5-million-population county entered 2020 with a $3.2 billion budget that rests largely on sales tax revenue. County officials expected that revenue to increase by 3 percent this year. The coronavirus has revenues actually collected down 27 percent. The county’s revenue shortfall for the year could hit $590 million. Federal aid under the CARES Act enacted earlier this spring will offset less than half that.
Without at least a quarter-billion in new support, widespread layoffs in public education and other public services will be unavoidable.
This impending fiscal horror story extends, to be sure, far beyond Suffolk County’s borders. Localities across the United States are facing massive budget shortfalls. In April, notes Economic Policy Institute analyst Elise Gould, the nation’s public schools lost more jobs than they lost over the course of the entire Great Recession a dozen years ago.
If no new significant support appears, Gould adds, any return to pre-pandemic local public service staffing levels will be “impossible.” And the resulting cutbacks in services would be particularly devastating for minority families. Their children make up 54 percent of public school enrollment nationwide.
How best to avoid deep cutbacks in education and other basic public services? Could moving funding out of traditional policing, as a growing national movement is now proposing, be the answer? Only partially. Much of the funding moved out of police departments would need to go toward creating new community capacity in areas that range from mediation to mental health.
Avoiding cutbacks in public education and other existing services will take new revenues, and Suffolk County has one especially promising potential source. At the county’s “East End” sits one of the world’s most famous watering holes for the fabulously rich, the Hamptons.
The households that summer in the Hamptons may breathe the same air as Suffolk County’s overwhelmingly middle-income majority. But they live in an entirely separate universe.
How separate? In Suffolk County as a whole, the median — most typical — household owns a home worth $409,400. In the more than two dozen villages and hamlets that make up the Hamptons, $400,000 won’t buy more than a shack. Half the two dozen hamlets in the Hamptons have median home prices between $2.2 million and $5.6 million.