Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk County Treasurer Angie Carpenter has won a court battle to block a referendum that could ax her job, but she still had to ask the county legislature last week to restore her salary and that of four top aides next year.
She had to make the appeal in a closed-door budget session because County Executive Steve Bellone before the recent court rulings did away with Carpenter's $186,000 annual salary and $337,000 in aides' pay in his proposed 2014 operating budget.
"It seems to be a little disingenuous for the county executive to presume he knew how the vote would go before the ballot proposition was even in place," said Carpenter, who survived two earlier attempts to do away with her office. Bellone said he was simply "very confident" voters would back the merger.
Courts earlier this month threw out Bellone's hastily prepared proposal to merge the county comptroller's and treasurer's offices, saying the administration had made changes to the referendum legislation after issuing public notice and before public hearings were conducted. Bellone said the ruling was based on a technicality; Carpenter said the county executive broke the law and wasted money on appeals.
But Carpenter's pay, her long-term future and the fate of the merger proposal are far from settled.
Bellone and Democratic lawmakers late last week held a rally to rail against Republicans for opposing the merger and vowed to put the issue in the ballot in November 2014. They claim the consolidation will save $830,000 to $1 million a year.
"Obstructionists to reform have won a round," said Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon). "But they denied their own voters a choice on how they want to be governed."
Carpenter says savings estimates are overblown and that her office is needed to protect taxpayer dollars. She backs proposals she says would lower county interest costs by $500,000 and get parcels back on the tax rolls more quickly.
While Bellone and Democratic lawmakers all back a new merger vote, they acknowledge no new legislation has been drafted. Bellone said a new measure will be ready for the first legislative meeting in January.
But the merger law will need an overhaul. The measure thrown out by the court would have installed term-limited Suffolk Comptroller Joseph Sawicki as the temporary head of a new fiscal office for a year and let him run for up to 12 more years as chief financial officer.
Sawicki is term-limited this year after 12 years in office, and cannot run for comptroller again. With the merger delay, the political parties will have to run new candidates for the office this November. If the merger is approved by voters next fall, officials would have to come up with a new transition scheme until an election for permanent chief fiscal officer takes place in November 2015.
Carpenter, who is running for re-election this year with major- and minor-party cross-endorsements, said once she starts her new four-year term in January, state law will bar shortening of her term.
Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk legislative counsel, said several State Court of Appeals rulings, including a 1979 case involving the Westchester County sheriff, allowed elimination of an elected office, even in midterm, as long as voters approve.
"There is no entitlement to any term of office as long as the voters are the ones to pull the trigger," Sabatino said.
Regardless, Suffolk lawmakers will have to decide whether to restore Carpenter's funding for next year.
Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley called it "a legitimate request" that "will be considered seriously."
Bellone said there have been "no discussions" about whether he would veto or approve the treasurer's funding for 2014. But he argued that the yearlong delay has meant lost county savings.
"Where I come from, $1 million is a lot of money," Bellone said.