Suffolk elected officials defy Steve Levy on hiring

Rick Brand

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Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about

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Call them the Gang of Five.

Last week, Suffolk's five countywide elected officials - three Republicans, a Conservative and a Democrat - stared down County Executive Steve Levy as he ranted how the fiscal sky will crash down if they are permitted to fill jobs already funded in the budget.

Levy said the proposed legislation would cut his power to "protect the taxpayers," and warned of "profound negative consequences not just this year but for decades to come" if the measure passes. He also vowed to sue to force a referendum and campaign against it.

But District Attorney Thomas Spota, Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, County Clerk Judy Pascale and Treasurer Angie Carpenter say as countywide officials they are no less responsible to taxpayers than Levy and should be able to fill budget jobs without groveling to the county executive. They know best what jobs are essential and what can be left vacant in a crunch.

"You can't save money by micromanaging when you don't know the needs of the department," said Legis. Vivian Viloria-Fisher, the bill's sponsor. Without filling key jobs in the budget, she said, "You have large overtime costs at the jail, you have to send prisoners out of the county and don't have auditors to bring in revenue."

Levy said countywide officials are replaying a 1990 court battle that former Democratic County Executive Patrick Halpin won when Republican District Attorney James M. Catterson Jr. and other GOP officials balked at trimming cost when Suffolk was in dire straits.

But backers say the new measure - which only affects 8 percent of the county's 12,000-person payroll - simply gives the countywide officials - like the legislature - control over their own hiring. They add that the bill also gives Levy the ability to challenge hirings, if he declares a public emergency, a budget deficiency, or a budget freeze. Countywide officials would then have to make their case to the legislature for approval.

However, Levy says the budget requires him to amass what are known as "turnover" savings by keeping some jobs vacant and that voters expect all officials to make cuts. "The public doesn't care about officials building empires, they want taxes controlled," he said.

What makes the faceoff unusual is that the countywide officials usually try to work behind the scenes to get what they need. The clash is a sign Levy's combative ways irk officials of all party stripes. "These are basically people not known for throwing bombs," said Paul Sabatino, a Levy former chief deputy and now a vocal foe. "But I think they have gotten frustrated because they have to constantly haggle over the size of the table and get a runaround."

In fact, one of the five, DeMarco, a Conservative, was allied to Levy when the county executive wanted to put lower-cost deputies on the Long Island Expressway to replace highway patrol officers. "It's always a process of groveling," he said.

Even John Jay LaValle, the Suffolk Republican chairman who just recruited Levy into the GOP ranks, was sympathetic with countywide officials. "They are given a budget and forced to rely on it. I don't see why they should not be able to fill positions," said LaValle. "You can't tell an elected official that he has 10 positions in the budget and then not sign the . . . forms to hire six."

LaValle acknowledges it was "kind of bizarre" for the officials to show up at Levy's news conference, but said he hopes to be able to get both sides to sit down and hammer out a compromise.

Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman who worked with Levy for seven years, says compromise is unlikely. "He's a party of one and it's his way or the highway," he said, "Instead of bringing people together, he tends to be disrespectful, divides them and rips them apart."