Suffolk officials still don't have to pay

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge. (July

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge. (July 31, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Rick Brand Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on

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

When Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivered his maiden state of the county message in April, he promised to "sacrifice together" as he called on public employee unions to agree to share the cost of health premiums for the first time.

But under resolutions enacting the deal, elected officials like him will feel none of the pain.

New union employees hired after Jan. 1 will pay 15 percent of the cost of health premiums. Political appointees -- from legislative aides to commissioners hired after Nov. 1 -- will pay the same share of health benefits. The new premiums will affect about 300 new hires a year.

While Bellone in his April speech vowed to immediately impose a 15 to 25 percent contribution on top county managers to pressure unions to follow his lead, the initiative was never implemented. A subsequent legislative resolution that included elected officials did pass, but did not have a chance to take effect because of the pending union deal.

That final package leaves the current county workforce of nearly 9,500 free of responsibility for any premium costs, which run about $7,000 a year for individuals and $17,000 for families.

Also, a legislative resolution that last month rescinded Bellone's original proposal also prevents any cost sharing by the county's 24 elected officials now or in the future.

"The contribution requirement . . . shall have no application to the county's elected officials or retirees current or future," according to the legislative resolution.

Inquiries about how that provision squares with Bellone's and lawmakers' call for shared pain brought varying responses.

Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon) deputy presiding officer, defended the premium-sharing arrangement, saying, "The concept was we get what the union gets since we are part of the existing employee staff."

Horsley also said it remains unclear whether it is legal for new lawmakers to pay more for benefits than incumbents, or if legislators elected to a new term would be liable to share the premium costs. Horsley called it a "constitutional question," and said he will seek a formal opinion from county attorneys.

When first called about the issue on Thursday, Bellone spokesman Jon Schneider said, "Our intention was to always have electeds pay," but added that officials were "still working our way through this." Later in the day, Assistant County Attorney Dennis Brown issued a memo stating that it is "reasonable to argue" that only new elected officials, not incumbents, should pay higher premiums. But he conceded it's an "open question" how to treat incumbents who are elected to a new term.

On Friday, Schneider said Bellone had decided to pay the 15 percent share of premiums, like new hires. "He intends to pick up the phone, call the comptroller and have him start making deductions from his paycheck," Schneider said. Bellone feels it will be up to other elected officials to decide how to handle the issue, Schneider said.

"It creates a political mess, but it's a pattern reflective of this administration," Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), minority leader, said of the exemption for elected officials.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said he hoped concerns will help generate support for a tabled resolution of his to allow lawmakers to voluntarily pay a share of their health costs -- a move he said he is prepared to make.

"I just couldn't face a new employee, who is paying a share of their premiums, if I am not willing to do it myself," he said.

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