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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

LI can't afford overly generous compensation deals

The Oceanside Sanitation Department, where Charles Scarlata is

The Oceanside Sanitation Department, where Charles Scarlata is a supervisor. (Oct. 29, 2009) Credit: Kathy Kmonicek

Press thumb in sand. And then poke it in the taxpayers' eye.

That's just what Oceanside garbage district officials did by adding insult to injury in giving a $40 so-called "merit" increase to a supervisor who will take home almost $200,000.

That's a heck of a lot more money than a garbage district supervisor should be making.

The district's board of commissioners - in the midst of a stinging recession that's forced most of us to slash spending - spread the wealth to all 15 district administrators and office workers.

The big winner, however, is Charles Scarlata, who will pull down at least $199,750 - making him one of the highest-paid officials on Long Island.

But wait, there's more.

Scarlata also gets perks that include a leased 2009 Chevrolet Tahoe, a $15,000 payment for life insurance and post-retirement pay of $25,000 a year for 15 years on top of his pension, according to an audit released in October.

It's all on the public's dime.

Which makes it just another example of Long Island's maddening practice of gifting overly generous compensation to public employees.

There's nothing wrong with fair compensation. Or even generous compensation. But the region - especially during these hard times - just can't afford to be overly generous with taxpayer money.

In Hempstead Village, a dispute over another monster payout shut prospective homeowners out of the opportunity to buy three new homes - for almost two years.

At issue was an almost $1-million judgment won by former village community development official Glen Spiritis, who successfully challenged a move to deny him money he said he was owed for salary and other compensation.

But wait, there was more.

While working as a consultant for the Community Development Agency after he left his village post, Spiritis also got a $75,000 life insurance policy and optical coverage for himself and his family. And employee credit in the state retirement system.

When Newsday asked former village Mayor James Garner about the contract, he said he had no regrets. Garner said Spiritis was "worth every bit of it and then some. He is the foremost, greatest CDA commissioner that I know."

That's nice. But it ignores the crucial question of whether taxpayers could afford his consulting services.

In 2001, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a panel charged with overseeing county finances in the midst of Nassau's fiscal crisis, took the unusual step of issuing labor guidelines - in response to the county's practice of awarding overly generous contracts to its unions.

The six-page memorandum - which went to county and union officials both - notes that collective bargaining has an essential role in ensuring "a fair result for the county's employees and the county's taxpayers."

It goes on to list 30 common sense points, most of which every local taxing entity ought to be considering these days. Among the points: "Justifying any wage increases greater than the Consumer Price Index's rate of inflation."

The supervisor's raise in Oceanside, and the Hempstead Village contract - which effectively pushed off a significant payout to what's turned out to be a dismal economic future - wouldn't meet NIFA's guidelines.

Still, some things are beginning to change. A recent Newsday check with eight school districts that have signed new teacher contracts since June found that first-year salary raises ranged from 1 percent to 2.75 percent - in addition to scheduled annual "step" increases.

The raises were well below the annual 3 percent to 3.5 percent hikes - plus steps - that were typical until the economic bust of a year ago.

It's a welcome move, with public employees and taxpayers working together to see the tough times through.

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