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While Suffolk’s workforce endured historic cuts over the past two years, County Executive Steve Bellone faced a lingering criticism: that he had bloated his patronage payroll at the expense of the rank-and-file.
A Newsday analysis of county records, however, shows that Bellone actually hasn’t expanded the number of non-union appointees under his control, compared to his predecessor.
Still, the records also reveal that the level of the executive’s so-called political hires has remained largely the same since late 2011, even as Suffolk’s overall employee count has fallen by nearly three times the rate.
Bellone, a Democrat, has frequently touted the total workforce reduction as a prime accomplishment of his term so far. He has also consolidated several departments, though those moves haven’t trimmed the number of top-level appointees, either.
A primary reason Bellone has faced criticism from opponents of his initiatives — notably a failed effort to fold the elected county treasurer’s office into the comptroller’s — could be a matter of perception.
Shortly after taking office in early 2012, Bellone laid off several members of the county's nonunion legal staff, using the savings to fund new, more-visible posts (dubbed the "Performance Management Team") meant to examine government efficiency.
“I think some people seized on those new positions, purposely ignoring the fact they were created in a budget-neutral way,” said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider.
DEEPER CUTS TO OVERALL WORKFORCE
In early October 2011 — near the end of County Executive Steve Levy’s tenure, but before many of his aides began to depart — there were 137 appointees in the departments he supervised, not including the dual-party controlled board of elections, or the independently elected offices of the district attorney, sheriff, clerk, comptroller, treasurer or the legislature.
At roughly the same time this year, under Bellone, there were 132 executive-controlled nonunion positions, a 3.6 percent drop, according to the county Legislature’s independent budget review office. Several vacancies, however, including the deputy social services commissioner and chief medical examiner, will soon be filled.
Cuts to the overall workforce have been deeper.
From early fall 2011 to the same point this year, Suffolk’s total employee count fell from 10,238 to 9,333, or 8.8 percent, budget show.
Nearly 500 of those employees were laid off, and Bellone says the total cuts save about $100 million a year in salary and benefits. That has helped Suffolk close its budget gap after ending 2012 with a $155 million deficit, Bellone said.
Don Boyd, a senior research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany, said it’s understandable for a county executive to protect the positions of top aides who can help “advance his or her agenda.”
But, Boyd said, “I think unions would like to see balanced cuts, so union officials can hold their heads up with their members."
CRITICS TARGET PATRONAGE
Some say Bellone’s patronage staff, which includes department commissioners and their aides, has not felt enough pain.
Earlier this year, Bellone cited potential savings of about $850,000 a year in pushing for a referendum to merge the office of Republican Treasurer Angie Carpenter with Comptroller Joe Sawicki. The effort would have eliminated the jobs of top treasurer’s staff.
Carpenter argued the projected savings could be better made up by trimming “the inordinate amount of consultants and political appointees,” under Bellone, particularly his government efficiency aides.
She noted that Bellone’s two full-time efficiency aides, plus the six department managers that contribute to its work, didn’t really study her office before calling for it to be merged.
“Not one came to the department,” Carpenter said. “And how very sad, but their salaries total over a million dollars.”
All but two of the high-paid aides who do “performance management” work, however, hold commissioner and deputy commissioner titles that also existed under Levy, county records show.
Another criticism Bellone has often had to dispute came up in the debate last spring over closing the county’s John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank, which resulted in more than 200 union layoffs.
“It’s disheartening enough that the county would lay off 300 AME members in the name of cost savings while hiring 150 political appointees at triple the salaries of those of the laid off members,” Don Dailey, an executive board member of the Association of Municipal Employees, said at a legislative meeting this summer.
Records show that Bellone has not added 150 patronage jobs to the level that previously existed. While he now controls more than 130 of those titles, a similar number existed under Levy.
The AME union, with about 4,900 active members, last week gained legislative approval on a new contract with the county that promises no further layoffs, and provides raises totaling 5 percent over 2015 and 2016.
Michael Finland, AME executive vice president, said the union’s focus now needs to shift from past cuts.
“In moving forward,” Finland said, “I would trust that county management would exercise good judgment in choosing future appointees.”