Suffolk lawmakers voted Tuesday to give District Attorney Thomas Spota the authority to withhold raises to his prosecutors as a motivator.
The County Legislature approved the plan, 17-1, empowering Spota with discretion over whether to grant 184 assistant district attorneys "step" increases, which now are automatic.
Under a 2005 law, all of Suffolk's 500 nonunion workers -- from prosecutors to political appointees -- receive raises of 2 to 4 percent each July until they reach the top wage step.
The district attorney sought a "management tool" to encourage some staff members to improve their performance, said Division Chief Edward Heilig.
"There are some situations where an ADA just needs a nudge," Heilig told lawmakers.
Spota, a Democrat, is seeking his fourth four-year term this fall. A 2012 state court decision overturned Suffolk's term-limits law that would have forced his departure at the end of 2013.
Heilig also noted that with automatic increases, less-senior employees quickly approach the top-step salaries that some of their veteran peers have had for 20 or more years.
Assistant district attorneys earn between $55,000 and $125,000 a year.
Some lawmakers said they trusted Spota not to withhold raises from deserving attorneys simply to slow them from reaching older colleagues' salaries.
"If it has nothing to do with merit, I won't support it," said Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), who voted yes.
Heilig replied that Spota "would not keep a step increase away from somebody who deserved it just because they're reaching top-level."
Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip), the sole "no" vote, said he thought withholding step raises even due to performance issues was wrong, because it goes against the understanding that prosecutors hired since 2005 have had.
"For someone who has been there the last seven/eight years, they came in with a specific understanding, and I think there's an expectation there," Barraga said.