Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Last year's battle over merging the offices of Suffolk County comptroller and treasurer turned into a political mess because it was done at the last minute, with details of the bill and savings estimates changing continuously. In the end, a planned referendum on the issue sank after a prolonged court fight.
Now comes Merger II.
The administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and county lawmakers are starting to talk earlier than last time. But stakes and partisanship may run even higher because county Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, a former Brookhaven Town supervisor, says he is weighing a run this fall for the $189,200-a-year comptroller's position in a bid to revive his electoral career.
Also considering the race are Democrat James Gaughran, the Suffolk County Water Authority chairman, and Steve Flotteron, a GOP town board member in Islip.
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, unveiled a revised merger proposal Thursday at a legislative caucus at party headquarters in Bohemia. The proposal, according to sources at the meeting, calls for a referendum on a merger this November. If approved, the merger would take effect next Jan. 1.
A new county chief financial officer would head the merged department. For the first year, he or she would be a temporary appointee of the county legislature until an election could be held in November 2015. County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, a Republican who is term-limited and cannot run for re-election, is considered likely to get the appointment.
The new department's top deputy would be current county Treasurer Angie Carpenter, who would remain in that post until her current term is up at the end of 2017.
Since the referendum cannot be held until November, there will have to be an election for county comptroller this year.
However, should the referendum pass, the comptroller election would become null and void and the money and time spent by candidates and their supporters would be wasted.
Schaffer said that given Sawicki's record and Democrats' past cross-endorsement of him, Democrats would back Sawicki for chief financial officer. Some have criticized Sawicki for backing the original merger in a political deal with Bellone, saying it would affect his independence as a watchdog, but Sawicki denies the claim.
Schaffer said the referendum measure, to be sponsored by Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia), incorporates "bits and pieces" of earlier proposals. "We were trying to respond to concerns raised originally and ideally save the taxpayers some money," he said.
Merger of the comptroller and treasurer offices is expected to save $400,000 to $500,000 a year, according to several people who attended the caucus last week.
LaValle denounced the revised proposal as a "concocted measure to subvert the process and remove the county's fiscal watchdog," and predicted its defeat.
Schaffer discounted LaValle's opposition, noting his personal interest in the comptroller's race.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he "tends to be supportive" of the referendum proposal, but wants to avoid a repeat of the problems that occurred last time.
"I want to make sure all the i's are dotted and t's crossed and make sure there isn't any room for legalities or questions," Gregory said. "We don't need to go through another court battle."