Barraga offers alternative to Levy layoffs

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (Sept. 14, 2011) Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (Sept. 14, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

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Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

In a budget crisis in which Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is looking to lay off hundreds of workers, and budget aides are warning of a cash-flow crunch, GOP Legis. Thomas F. Barraga is offering what he calls "a better approach."

At the legislature's budget committee last week, Barraga laid out a multipronged proposal he said could generate more than $100 million in revenue. He offered his plan at the same meeting at which legislative budget analysts warned that Suffolk could run out of cash by April due to delays in state aid payments and other issues.

"Everyone's painting a doom-and-gloom picture," said Barraga, "but this could change things dramatically." He noted that Suffolk doesn't face the depth of problems confronting Nassau, "and we have the means to effectively close the gap without raising taxes."

Barraga, 68, has credibility in part because his credentials as a fiscal conservative are as strong as Levy's. Over the past 34 years, the ex-Marine has held elected office at the town, county and state levels. That included a stint as ranking minority member of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee in Albany. Never bashful about speaking his mind, or uncomfortable about straying away from the GOP caucus, Barraga nonetheless has shown himself to be savvy about what is politically possible.

Barraga wants Suffolk to sell the rights to the remaining 25 percent of tobacco settlement revenue that is due the county from a multistate lawsuit. That would generate some $33 million, he says.

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Barraga also says the county should use its entire rainy-day fund, which currently has $60 million. Levy, however, wants to use $12 million of the fund to pay bills for Tropical Storm Irene, until federal aid comes in.

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Instead of threatening layoffs if the county's 10,000 workers refuse to agree to pay 25 percent of health care premiums, Barraga wants Suffolk to press unions for deferral of two-weeks' pay. Immediate savings would be worth about $32 million, and workers would get the money when they retire or leave the county, Barraga said.

Meanwhile, Barraga says Suffolk should seek a 25 percent share of health premiums only from newly hired workers. "I think the unions see the handwriting on the wall," about the need to pick up some of their health care costs, he said. However, "What's on the table is not going to fly" with them, Barraga said.

Levy spokesman Mark Smith conceded Barraga's "rock-solid" standing as a fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, Levy opposes Barraga's plan, preferring "real, recurring savings . . . from requiring employee health care premiums," Smith said. "Use of the [rainy-day] fund and other one-shots lets the unions off the hook and will lead to a downgrading of our historic high bond ratings."

Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) said some of Barraga's "ideas have merit, but much of what he is talking about [involves] one-shots, which is not the most appealing way to go." But he agreed the county should avoid layoffs.

Still, Barraga's proposal remains the most concrete Republican offering in play. Two weeks ago, a GOP news conference fell flat after Suffolk Treasurer Angie Carpenter, the party's county executive candidate, declined to endorse a $65 million plan to sell off liens on unpaid taxes. GOP minority leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) then promised to deliver a new GOP budget initiative last Tuesday -- the same day Barraga released his proposal -- but that plan has yet to materialize.

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Kennedy said Barraga's proposals likely will form part of both the final GOP budget plan and the legislature's ultimate budget package.

"Laying off hundreds of people is completely unnecessary, and I would consider it a personal failure of leadership if that should happen," Barraga said. "How would that grow Suffolk's economy?"

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