Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's hiring of veteran budget guru Fred Pollert has given his new administration a needed shot of fiscal credibility.
But hiring Pollert as his chief fiscal deputy also has saddled Bellone's administration with its first conundrum -- the prospect of putting a $300,000-a-year double dipper on the payroll.
Pollert, 62, already is receiving a $132,996 state pension and cannot also collect the agreed upon $175,000 salary for the full-time county job without a waiver from the state Civil Service Commission. Without a waiver, Pollert, who worked 27 years for the legislature's office of budget review and six years as former County Executive Steve Levy's top budget aide, would be limited to making $30,000 a year until age 65, when all restrictions end.
But such huge payments have the makings of a political land mine as Suffolk faces a fiscal crisis that Bellone himself says may be the "greatest we have ever seen."
When Pollert's appointment became known on Dec. 30, the day of Bellone's inauguration, Newsday made inquiries about Pollert's salary and the need for a waiver. On Thursday, Bellone said he would seek one for Pollert.
"This is a classic definition of why we have a waiver," Bellone said. "We have a fiscal crisis . . . and there is no one who has Fred's wealth of knowledge or depth of experience to get the job done . . . We cannot afford time for a learning curve."
Under state law, waivers can be granted only when there is "an urgent need . . . as the result of an unplanned, unpredictable, and unexpected vacancy where sufficient time is not available to recruit a qualified individual." State law limits the waivers to no more than two years.
Bellone said he decided to bring Pollert back also because his transition team could not come up with a suitable alternate choice. Bellone said some contenders with the necessary credentials were making more in the private sector than the county could afford to pay. Others who worked at a town level would have needed time to gear up to the job.
Pollert left county government in 2008 to take a post as vice president for administration with the Long Island Power Authority. He retired in early 2010. More recently, Pollert worked part-time as a management consultant to Brookhaven Town, making $30,000 a year, which is allowed by state law.
Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) said Bellone should have asked Pollert if he would be willing to come back to the county and work for $30,000 a year. Barraga cited the precedent of Joseph Montouri, who until last month served as county parks commissioner. Montouri took a $30,000 salary, since he also was receiving a state pension as a retired parks superintendent.
Yet, Barraga said he expects no political furor over hiring Pollert because of his reputation as a nonpartisan budget professional. "He's a good man, extremely knowledgeable and a tremendous asset," Barraga said.
Levy said Pollert is worth whatever the county has to pay. "Fred is just an amazing talent . . . he'll save the administration and the county millions of dollars," Levy said. "You don't want to do it on a regular basis, but there are times you have to make exceptions, and a guy of his caliber is too hard to pass up."
Bellone aides also note that the county will not require county pension payments or health premiums for Pollert. "He may not be here forever," Bellone said. But right now, "the county needs Fred Pollert."