Bellone merger plan could negate Sawicki term limit

Steve Bellone reflects on his first year in

Steve Bellone reflects on his first year in office as Suffolk County executive. (Jan. 2, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas)

Suffolk County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki would be eligible to remain in office up to 12 more years if County Executive Steve Bellone's proposal to merge the offices of comptroller and treasurer wins legislative and voter approval.

The proposed bill that Bellone filed late Tuesday with county lawmakers would not only let Sawicki remain in charge of the merged office on an interim basis, but allow him to run for the newly created post of chief financial officer despite the county's existing 12-year term limit law. Republican Sawicki, 58, who in his 11th year as the county's $175,000 a year comptroller, has one more year before the term-limit law would kick in.

Bellone's proposed law states the term limit law "shall not be construed as barring any official holding elected office at the time of the adoption of this law from seeking the elective office of county chief financial officer . . . and serving up to 12 consecutive years."


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Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the language was included because "clearly it's a different job." But he added, "The personalities are irrelevant. What's important here is giving the voters the opportunity to vote on a common-sense consolidation that saves $1 million while enhancing services."

Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), meanwhile, called a special legislative meeting July 22 to hold a public hearing on the proposed merger law to make it possible for a July 30 vote. The deadline for a resolution seeking a November referendum is 60 days before Election Day, and the next legislative meeting is scheduled for Sept. 12.

Bellone first called for the merger last week, maintaining it will save $1 million annually by cutting seven management jobs. He also proposed that the county executive have the power to appoint an interim head of a merged department from the start of 2014 until the November referendum can be held. Sawicki criticized that part of Bellone's proposal, saying it would "undermine the integrity and independence" of the comptroller's office. Bellone aides say Lindsay urged Bellone to alter the bill.

Sawicki Wednesday deferred any comments on details of the bill -- including term limits -- until his staff can review the entire legislation."Now that the independence issue has been resolved, our mission is now to study the proposal closely," he said. "I and my staff are looking at what is in the interest of Suffolk taxpayers, not only analyzing the cost savings, but to ensure the new resolution preserves the . . . integrity of the comptroller's watchdog role."

Noting his office last month found that county year-end deficit was $155 million -- higher than Bellone had projected -- Sawicki said, "Any proposal to consolidate and save taxpayer money and reduce the size of government has to be taken seriously."

However, county Treasurer Angie Carpenter, a Republican who lost to Bellone in 2011, said the roles of treasurer and comptroller are much different and that merging the offices would "reduce the checks and balances" that taxpayers need. "Even a first-year accounting major knows that co-mingling of funds is a recipe for financial disaster."

Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) minority leader, also questioned how Bellone can legally eliminate the county treasurer job without first amending the Suffolk County Tax Act, the state law that details how county property taxes are to be collected, and in which the treasurer has major role.

"The last I looked, the state legislature is going out of session in two days," Kennedy said. "And in the past, they have been extremely reluctant to touch any aspect of the Suffolk County Tax Act."

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