Fight over merging Suffolk offices continues

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed merging

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed merging the elected offices of treasurer and comptroller. Treasurer Angie Carpenter, left, is up for re-election to a four-year term this fall. Joseph Sawicki, right, has been comptroller since 2003, and term limits prohibit him from running again in 2014. (Credit: James Escher; Kathy Kmonicek)

Legislative opponents of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's proposal to merge the elected offices of treasurer and comptroller moved Thursday to derail his plan, but the administration still hopes to gain its approval next week.

By having most of its members abstain on a vote, the county legislature's government operations committee killed the controversial measure to authorize a November referendum on the merger. While the action, for now, prevents the bill from being approved in time to make the ballot, the administration said it expects to gather the 10 lawmaker signatures necessary for a petition to bypass the committee and get it before the full legislature on Tuesday.

"I'm confident that a majority of county legislators want to give the public a choice in this matter," said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider.

Bellone, a Democrat, wants voters to decide whether the county should eliminate Republican Treasurer Angie Carpenter's position and four others on her staff, and fold the remaining employees into the office of Republican Comptroller Joseph Sawicki. The administration said the merger would save $833,000 in salaries and benefits next year, but legislative budget analysts have not yet confirmed that estimate.

Sawicki, who otherwise must leave office next year because of term limits, would be interim head of the new department and be allowed to run for election next year for the new title, chief financial officer. Carpenter, who lost to Bellone in the 2011 county executive race, assailed the merger as "political," saying it would imperil the "checks and balances" that her office provides over county finances.

In a tense exchange, Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) took issue with Deputy County Executive Tom Melito calling the consolidation "low-hanging fruit," despite having never personally studied the treasurer and comptroller's operations before suggesting the merger.

"I don't know how you can come to us and portray yourself as someone who supports 'performance management' having never visited either of those departments," Cilmi said.

The administration also was criticized for writing the referendum question to say that a merger would be "streamlining and improving" efficiency.

Legis. Rick Montano (D-Brentwood) called it "loaded" language meant to lead voters.

"I think it's appalling that this would be done, and that you would sit there with a straight face and try to sell this to me," Montano told Melito.

But Melito said Suffolk's projected $250 million budget gap requires new ways of thinking.

"We are slow to adapt to change, over-processed and in need of a major overhaul," Melito said of county government.

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