Union leaders: Bellone's ignoring us

Frustration over impending job cuts boils over as union officials accuse Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone of ignoring their concerns. Videojournalist: Ed Betz (May 3, 2012)

Frustration over Suffolk's impending layoffs boiled over Thursday as union officials accused County Executive Steve Bellone of ignoring their concerns.

At a contentious legislative committee meeting, leaders of the 3,500-member Association of Municipal Employees were sharply critical of 315 job losses that are coming this summer. AME President-elect Dan Farrell went as far as to proclaim -- of a Bellone aide he said has been unresponsive after pledging the administration's door was open -- "If I have to knock his door down, I'll knock his door down."

But the aide, Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider, said Suffolk's head labor negotiator had communicated with both Farrell and outgoing AME president Cheryl Felice in recent days. Further, he said the union has yet to offer a plan to produce a necessary $35 million in layoff savings through 2013, and to reduce a $530 million deficit projection that already assumes the job cuts.

"All you have to do is look across the county line and see what happens when you don't get your fiscal house in order," Schneider said after the meeting, referring to Nassau County. "You get a control board, you get half of the police precincts closed, you get more layoffs and you get an endless cycle of debt."

Schneider insisted Bellone remains open to all proposals, but said it might take more than a retirement incentive such as one that saved 38 police officer jobs.

Bellone, a Democrat, revised the July 1 layoff list he inherited, saving 149 jobs, but the union and some Republican lawmakers didn't think he went far enough.

Farrell criticized his hiring of a $150,000-a-year consultant and $170,000-a-year economic development chief from outside the county, while eliminating more than a dozen local security guards whose total salaries barely eclipse the two appointees. The government operations committee urged Bellone and the unions to get to the table immediately.

"We need this administration to sit down with our union leaders, and if necessary, sit around the clock and bring them sandwiches and bring them coffee to get this done," said Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches).

Even a member of the Democratic majority expressed frustration with the back-and-forth.

"You better [sit down] fast, or things are going to get ugly," said Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue).

The fireworks came after nearly two dozen county employees, most slated to lose their jobs July 1, lobbied lawmakers. They expressed fears of losing their homes and told stories of children who are asking if they needed to forego college.

"There are faces and families that go with our titles," said Valerie Vericello-Cavuoto, a health services clerk-typist. "I want to know if you saw the name that goes with my title?"

An epidemiology public health nurse said the elimination of two federally funded nurses will make it harder to educate the public on disease outbreaks like salmonella.

"With such a skeletal staff, questions will go unanswered," Joan Schwitzer said of queries from the public.

Lawmakers promised to introduce a bill restoring all remaining positions on the layoff list that are fully funded by state or federal grants.

Also Thursday, they debated bills to freeze the salaries of Suffolk's management staff, and, as of Nov. 1, to make all 433 nonunion workers pay up to 25 percent of their health care costs.

The wage freeze was tabled, while the health care measure was sent to the full legislature, without recommendation, for a vote Tuesday.

The pay-in for non-union employees would net the county only $1.2 million a year. But Bellone aides said it sends the right message that unions aren't the only group sacrificing.

"Right now, the only people paying are the 315 being laid off, and it's not fair," said Ben Zwirn, Bellone's legislative liaison. "He [Bellone] knows it's not fair."

With Laura Figueroa

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