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Suffolk Democrats seize on merger effort as key campaign issue

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks about the county's budget at his office in the Dennision Buiding in Hauppauge. (Sept. 20, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

Flanked by nearly the entire slate of Democratic candidates for the Suffolk Legislature, County Executive Steve Bellone on Thursday characterized his push to merge the elected offices of comptroller and treasurer as one of the key campaign issues this fall.

“This Democratic majority, we’re anxious to get this before the voters,” Bellone, a Democrat, said from a news conference at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 25 hall in Hauppauge. “The other side, they believe they should do everything in their power to keep this from the voters.”

At issue is Bellone’s effort to collapse the office of Republican Treasurer Angie Carpenter into that of Republican Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, creating a new department that he says would save $833,000 a year by eliminating five top-level positions – including Carpenter’s.

Bellone had hoped voters would be deciding the issue directly via a referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot. But after the county legislature voted 12-3 in July to authorize that referendum, Carpenter sued, saying that the administration had improperly altered the original language of the merger proposal after it had been published in legal notices.

A state Supreme Court justice agreed, and that decision was upheld all the way to the Court of Appeals, which knocked the referendum off the ballot earlier this month. It would have asked for approval of the merger for the purpose of “streamlining and improving government efficiency” - language that opponents called leading.

The original wording promised $1 million annual savings, but was removed after Bellone revised the estimate downward.

Following the court defeat, Bellone and legislative Democrats now vow to reintroduce legislation to approve the referendum early next year, targeting the Nov. 2014 ballot.

Carpenter, who is running unopposed next month for a new four-year term, said she believes her position can’t be altered mid-term. Regardless, she said her feelings on the merger remain the same: that it would imperil county financial checks and balances.

“It’s still a bad idea,” said Carpenter, who lost to Bellone in the 2011 county executive election. “A bad idea is a bad idea, no matter when you do it.”

Democrats and their minor party allies now hold a 13-5 advantage in the legislature, though Bellone is looking to strengthen his sway with the caucus by retaining two open seats now held by Democrats and replacing one party member who often criticizes the administration – Legis. Rick Montano (D-Brentwood) – with Monica Martinez, the sister of Bellone’s former colleague on the Babylon town board.

Martinez won last month’s Democratic primary, though Montano remains on the November ballot as the Working Families Party nominee.

Bill Lindsay, a Democrat who is looking to win the seat last held by his late father, former Presiding Officer William Lindsay, said he sees the merger as one of many potential solutions to help plug Suffolk’s estimated $180 million budget deficit heading into 2014. Bellone budgeted the $833,000 savings from the merger in his 2014 budget even as the referendum was being challenged, so lawmakers will now need to make up that figure elsewhere.

“This is not about protecting any one person or a vendetta against any one person,” Lindsay said in framing the merger issue as governmental, not political.

But Suffolk GOP Chairman John Jay LaValle blasted the Democrats’ turning the topic into a campaign rallying cry.

“Republicans invented the concept of merger and consolidation, and we support that concept when done appropriately,” LaValle said. “The reality is this was a political endeavor -- trying to hurt Angie Carpenter for running against Bellone -- and that’s exactly why he held a political press conference today.”

Bellone, speaking below a banner reading “Let the People Vote,” pledged that his administration will ensure the new referendum legislation will remove opportunities for opponents to challenge on a procedural basis.

“Unfortunately, people that lose legislatively will sue the county in an effort to win on process,” Bellone said. “That will not happen this time.”

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) countered that Bellone and his allies “can try and deflect the blame all the want.

“Whether the county executive's staff is just incapable, or they think they're above the law, the fact is there are rules and procedures that must be followed and time and again, this administration has sought to circumvent or just outright ignore those rules,” Cilmi said. “Frankly, it's alarming.”

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