Visitors to Nassau County's legislative and executive building in Garden City were greeted Wednesday with the sight of a half dozen jail inmates in orange jumpsuits raking and pulling weeds.

One visitor - CSEA president Jerry Laricchiuta - was so surprised that he jumped out of his car, ran across Franklin Avenue and confronted a group of county big shots watching the inmates work.

"I hope all these guys are CSEA members," said the head of the county's largest union.

Laricchiuta said the Civil Service Employees Association contract with Nassau prohibits anyone but his members from doing CSEA work, such as county landscaping and maintenance, without union approval.

If the inmate crew keeps working, he said, he will complain Thursday to the Public Employees Relations Board, noting the union won a similar dispute about inmate labor under the prior administration. "It's a blatant violation of the contract," Laricchiuta said.

The county, however, said the inmates will keep working.

"Through Labor Day, we will be using nonviolent sentenced inmates to supplement public works crews for tasks like weed removal on county grounds," said Deputy County Executive Ian Siegel. "We would rather have our employees focused on priority tasks like filling potholes, clearing sumps and cleaning storm drains before hurricane season."

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Laricchiuta noted that he had met with county officials Monday, but none mentioned the inmate plan. "If they had called me two weeks ago and said we want to do a project, maybe we could have worked something out," he said.

Garden City Village Administrator Robert Schoelle said the sheriff's office notified him yesterday morning that inmate crews would be doing landscaping at the county buildings. "I think it's a productive use of manpower," he said. "We don't have a problem."

Both Nassau Presiding Officer Diane Yatauro and Minority Leader Peter Schmitt said they were open to using inmate labor so long as the union contract is not breached.

But Legis. David Mejias (D-Farmingdale) said, "The taxpayers don't care about these petty differences. Their money pays to put these guys up, so we should put them to work."