Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk County Treasurer Angie Carpenter is virtually guaranteed election in November because the Republican has the backing of all the major and minor parties.
But if county lawmakers approve Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone's plan to put a referendum on the ballot to merge the treasurer and comptroller posts, Carpenter may never get to serve a day of her third term.
It is not the first time Carpenter, 69, has faced an effort to abolish her job. Just 11 days after taking office in 2006, former County Executive Steve Levy tried the same thing, but he could not get his proposal through the legislature. "It's harder this time," said Carpenter, who ran unsuccessfully against Bellone two years ago. "Levy didn't lie. If he disagreed with you, he did it to your face and made his case."
When the rumor of a departmental merger first began circulating last fall, before Bellone unveiled his 2014 budget, Carpenter said she confronted the county executive who told her, "Absolutely not Angie. I would never do that to you." Carpenter said that after the new proposal surfaced, she spoke to Bellone again and he told her, "Things change."
Bellone declined to "get into any conversations I've had with Angie. But this is not about personalities, it's about protecting the taxpayers."
Suffolk faces an estimated $250 million budget shortfall through 2014, and Bellone said the merger will save $1 million a year by eliminating seven jobs. Carpenter and Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, a Republican, earn $175,000 each.
Carpenter says Bellone's savings estimates are overblown, and that taxpayers cannot afford to lose the checks and balances the treasurer and comptroller's offices provide. While Suffolk may be the only county in New York State with an elected comptroller and treasurer, Carpenter notes that each has a treasurer, whether elected or appointed. The Suffolk treasurer collects delinquent property taxes and maintains and protects the records of the county's nearly 600,000 property tax parcels.
"Consolidation might sound good as a buzz word, but we're not really saving anything because the job still has to get done," she said. "And without checks and balances, the county could be so compromised we could be faced with a financial control board because no one is watching."
Bellone's move also made party leaders appear out of the loop, said John Cochrane, a former Suffolk GOP chairman. "I was completely taken aback," he said. "It makes them look completely uninvolved."
Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, who in May named Carpenter to run on the Democratic line, said he learned of Bellone's plan two days before it became public. "I've made my thoughts known on the issue," Schaffer said, but declined to be specific.
If the referendum passes, Republicans would net nothing from the cross-endorsement deal, which also covered Democratic District Attorney Thomas Spota and Conservative Sheriff Vincent DeMarco.
John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, criticized Bellone's merger proposal as a way to reduce fiscal oversight and said the county needs a financial control board. LaValle also called the merger plan "bad faith on the part of the Democratic Party. If they were endeavoring to make this kind of proposal they should have presented it before they made a cross-endorsement deal." However, he said the GOP would not back away from its endorsements, which were based on the "good performance" of the three candidates.
Even Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip), Carpenter's hometown lawmaker, said he plans to vote to put the merger on the ballot. "It's not a question about one person or another," Barraga said. "It's about letting people make the decision."
Other lawmakers and political officials say that in light of Bellone's recent hardball moves, it's unclear whether there'll be enough votes at the next legislative meeting on July 30 for a referendum, despite a 13-5 Democratic caucus edge.
Some Democratic lawmakers also also expressed concern that Bellone's move against Carpenter might boost GOP turnout and hurt Democrats' re-election chances.
"There's some very strange politics being played here," said Legis. Rick Montano (D-Brentwood), who is facing a primary that some say is engineered by Bellone, despite his denial. "He's coming in at the last minute with a proposal, but we don't know if its reality or a snow job."