Nassau patronage worth a second look in this economy

Politicians love promising to ferret waste, fraud and Politicians love promising to ferret waste, fraud and abuse out of government as a way to save money. But nobody ever mentions the price of political patronage. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Politicians love promising to ferret waste, fraud and abuse out of government as a way to save money. But nobody ever mentions the price of political patronage.

There's nothing inherently wrong with patronage. It's one way political parties solicit and repay campaign workers, donors and party affiliates -- which, like it or not, makes the winning party's ability to award lucrative contracts and jobs part of the political process.

Take Paul LaRocco's report in last week's Newsday about Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano increasing county spending to contract with outside (and politically connected) law firms for legal work.

Former County Executive Thomas Gulotta, a Republican like Mangano, did the same thing.

Yes, that changed with Gulotta's successor, Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, who beefed up the county attorney's office to pull back contracted work as a way to save money.

But in his second term, Suozzi -- who initially ran on a platform that included bringing the best and brightest into government -- was himself criticized for bringing politically connected lawyers into the county attorney's office during his ill-fated run for governor in 2006.

Still, there are good reasons why voters hate patronage. For one, plenty of non-politically connected people and businesses could use work, especially as Long Island recovers from the Great Recession. For another, being politically connected does not necessarily translate into being good at a public job.

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A report in last week's Newsday by Celeste Hadrick said Nassau paid $26 million last year to more than 2,000 part-time and seasonal workers. About half of those employees worked in Nassau's parks department -- with some earning more than full-time union workers in the same and higher-level jobs.

One example: Zahid Syed, who last year earned $66,469.66 as a $50-an-hour part-time Nassau golf course attendant. Syed, who could not be reached for comment, also makes $125,736 annually as a full-time economic development zone coordinator for the Town of Hempstead.

The two jobs brought Syed's public pay last year to $192,205.66. Syed, co-founder of the local chapter of the South Asian-American Political Action Committee, and his wife have contributed a total of $26,000 to Mangano and other county Republican campaign committees since 2009.

The Mangano administration's response is that Nassau, which has spent more than a decade under a state fiscal monitoring board, has significantly reduced the number of county full-time employees. And part-timers cost less because they don't get health care and other benefits, the administration says.

But according to the Newsday report, some of those part-timers appear to have worked full-time hours -- which, under the contract with the Civil Service Employees Association, could have entitled them to benefits.

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One seasonal parks worker, who earned $13.35 an hour, for example, was paid $45,352 last year, including $24,034 in overtime -- an average 53.80 hours each week for 52 weeks.

County Comptroller George Maragos and the union are looking into part-time pay.

And well they should.

Patronage on this scale, in a financially stressed county, where full-time workers were under a three-year-long wage freeze, seems wildly abusive.

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