In Suffolk, never mind the merger; where is the overall financial plan?

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone hurt his own

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone hurt his own case for merging the offices of county treasurer and comptroller by lowering the estimates of how much a merger would cost. (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone hurt his own case for merging the offices of county treasurer and comptroller Monday by lowering the estimates of how much a merger would save.

The new estimates -- which reduced the savings from the original $1 million to $833,000, by cutting two fewer jobs -- came during a public hearing.

Bellone, in putting forth the merger proposal last month, had pitched the move as a significant cost-savings measure.


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So much for that argument.

However, Bellone wants the county legislature to authorize a public referendum on the merger idea for November, and that isn't necessarily a bad idea.

For one, a referendum would provide proponents and opponents a public forum for making their cases.

It also could lift Bellone's proposal out of the muddy pit of politics, which, thus far, has seeded most of the debate.

The positions that Bellone, a Democrat, wants to merge are held by elected Republicans.

Initially, both Angie Carpenter, Suffolk's treasurer, and Joseph Sawicki, the county comptroller, were -- no surprise -- opposed to the move.

But Sawicki found reason to change his mind after Bellone filed a bill that not only would place Sawicki in charge of the merged office on an interim basis in 2014, but allow him after that to run for the newly created chief financial officer post.

Bellone, in addressing criticism of the move, points out that a lawmaker added language allowing Sawicki to run for the CFO post. But that doesn't change the fact that Bellone incorporated the language into his referendum proposal bill.

Suffolk's comptroller audits spending and issues bonds. The county treasurer oversees about 600,000 county tax parcel records and collects delinquent taxes.

If a merger makes sense, merge -- but not in a way that favors one current office holder over another. Under changes to the referendum bill that Bellone announced Monday, all five job eliminations would come from Carpenter's office.

Sawicki has a year to go before being term-limited out as comptroller; Carpenter, who lost a race against Bellone for county executive, is practically a shoo-in for re-election come November because she's been cross-endorsed by Democrats.

All of which gives Bellone's merger fervor more twists than a Twizzler.

There's nothing wrong with making government leaner, or reducing its cost.

But given Suffolk's recent credit downgrade by two Wall Street bond rating agencies, shouldn't that be part of an overall plan to reduce the county's deficit, which officials say could reach $250 million by the end of 2014?

One bond-rating agency cited Suffolk's inability to put a deficit-reduction plan into place as reason for knocking the county's rating down a notch.

Where, then, is the plan?

Albany recently gave permission for Suffolk to realize $70 million in one-shot revenues from a sale-leaseback of the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.

What else is Suffolk going to do about the deficit? And when is it planning to do it?

Those are key questions -- not a sideshow on a merger proposal that now turns out to be less than was advertised.