Editorial: Suffolk comptroller-treasurer merger could get sticky

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. Photo Credit: James Escher; Kathy Kmonicek

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There's a reason that 61 of New York's 62 counties do not elect both a treasurer and a comptroller: To do so makes no sense. Suffolk is the one outlier, but County Executive Steve Bellone hopes to change that, with voter approval.

Bellone wants a referendum in November to combine the two offices, and says a merger would save about $1 million a year, mostly by eliminating management overlap (each official earns $175,000). Certainly, with the county facing a $250-million deficit, savings would be welcome, but that's not the main reason to make a change.

The job of treasurer, held by Republican Angie Carpenter since 2006, shouldn't be elective. The clerical and administrative work of the treasurer is not political, its execution is not driven by policy. A comptroller, though, should be elected. That person is a watchdog the people deserve to pick, as they would if the roles were combined.

Republican Joseph Sawicki has been a very able comptroller since 2003. A term limit prevents him from running again in 2014, although perhaps not for this newly created office. Carpenter, who has done a fine job as treasurer, is seeking re-election this fall.

Overall, Bellone's idea makes sense, but the execution of it is imperfect. Some members of the county legislature, which must approve the referendum, rightly question whether the final year of Sawicki's term should or can be cut off. Democrat Bellone's plan to appoint an interim chief financial officer to run the combined operation until voters elect someone in 2014 would give his choice an incumbent's edge.

Letting Bellone appoint the watchdog who oversees his financial handling of the county is worrisome. Prematurely ending the term of the comptroller may not be legal. Efforts to combine these two posts have failed before, and unless Bellone can find a way to adequately answer these concerns, it might again.

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