Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Monday revised his controversial plan to merge the elected positions of comptroller and treasurer by reducing the number of jobs it would cut and the amount of money it would save.
Under one change, all five job eliminations would come from the office of Republican Treasurer Angie Carpenter, who opposes the merger. The staff of GOP Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, who backs the proposal, would remain.
The revisions came as speakers at a lengthy public hearing overwhelmingly opposed placing a referendum to approve the merger on the November ballot. Many in the large crowd asked the county legislature to delay its decision, now set for July 30.
But lawmakers voted 10-5 to close the hearing, so it cannot continue at the upcoming legislative meeting. That effectively kept the vote to OK the ballot measure on track. A legislative committee will consider Bellone's resolution on Thursday.
Bellone, a Democrat, initially said consolidating the offices of Sawicki and Carpenter would save $1 million a year by eliminating seven management jobs in the two departments.
But after Sawicki endorsed the plan, which would appoint him as interim chief financial officer -- then allow him to run for election to the post, even though his term as comptroller ends next year -- the referendum resolution was revised. It now calls for cutting only five jobs: Carpenter's and four others within her office. Savings would be reduced to $833,000.
Carpenter, who lost to Bellone in the 2011 county executive race, has called the merger "political," and said it would imperil the treasurer's "checks and balances" over finances. Many speakers echoed her.
"This looks like it is personality driven and that there's not enough savings to make it a good idea," said Tom Breeden, a Suffolk County Community College professor and co-chairman of the board of county union leaders that oversees Suffolk's self-insured health plan.
Breeden was among 48 speakers at a hearing that lasted six hours. Only eight witnesses backed the merger; they echoed Bellone's argument that it would save money at a time when Suffolk faces a $250-million budget gap through 2014.
Michael Iasilli, a St. Joseph's College student from Port Jefferson Station, noted that the measure discussed Monday simply allows for a referendum, and doesn't enact the merger. The bill "just gives voters the chance to choose which path they prefer," he said.
Sawicki, who audits county funds, has 63 employees and a $5.6-million budget. Carpenter, who collects revenues and delinquent taxes, has 42 workers and a $4.3-million budget.
"Sooner or later, with taxpayers wanting leaner and meaner and less burdensome government, this is going to happen," said Sawicki. "Time has come."
Though Suffolk is the last New York county to elect a treasurer and comptroller, Carpenter said 70 percent of the counties elect a treasurer. "You need to make this decision on the merits and not push it off on residents," she told lawmakers. "If we stick to the merits, there's no other conclusion than it's wrong for the county."To make the November ballot, a referendum must be approved by Sept. 4. The legislature planned its vote on July 30, because the next full meeting after that is not until Sept. 12.