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Management employee ranks increase in Suffolk County

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in his Hauppauge

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in his Hauppauge office on Feb. 1, 2017. Credit: Ed Betz

The number of Suffolk County management employees, some with political ties and most exempt from competitive Civil Service tests, has climbed over the past four years while the rank-and-file county workforce has shrunk.

As of December, there were 145 nonunion employees under County Executive Steve Bellone, compared with 122 in December 2012 at the end of his first year in office, according to data obtained through the Freedom of Information Law. That was an increase of nearly 19 percent.

The number of unionized county employees dropped during the same period by 488, or 4.8 percent, as workers left and positions went unfilled.

The effort to reduce the size of the county workforce has been at the center of Bellone’s push to cut costs to battle the county’s budget deficit, which exceeds $135 million a year.

As the county has hiked fees by more than $80 million in the past two years and raised police district property taxes to pay for police contracts, Bellone has cited the reduced workforce as evidence that county government is becoming more efficient.

Bellone, a Democrat, defended his hiring of management employees, known as exempts. He said most of those employees are nonpolitical, and that at the end of 2012, the number of exempts was at a historic low after cuts he and his predecessor, Republican Steve Levy, had made.

“My whole career has been about making government more efficient,” Bellone said in an interview. “We’re not some patronage spot.”

Total county employment is at its lowest level since 1993. The number of county positions — most of which are held by members of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees — has declined by 1,078, or 9.5 percent, since Bellone took office in January 2012 county records show. There have been more than 300 layoffs.

But hiring of exempts has climbed back to levels of the Levy administration, which ended in December 2011.

Exempt employees include department heads and deputy county executives, as well as attorneys in the law department and assistant county executives.

Also among them are lower-level aides who staff the county executive’s office, all staff members at the county legislature, attorneys in the county district attorney’s office and a handful of other countywide elected officials.

Bellone is responsible for exempt hiring at 17 departments. All but 13 of the 145 positions in departments that report to Bellone are exempt from competitive Civil Service tests.

Hires have come from the ranks of Babylon Town Hall, where Bellone had previously served as supervisor, and the offices of former Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop and Steve Israel.

They also include unsuccessful and former elected officials and candidates, among them former Brookhaven Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld, former Brookhaven Town Council candidate Amy Keyes, former county Comptroller Joseph Sawicki and former Family Court Judge Marlene Budd.

There also are family members of elected officials, including Elaine Barraga, a county attorney and daughter of Suffolk Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip), who was hired originally under Levy. Elaine Barraga and her father declined to respond to a request for comment made with the county.

Bellone administration officials also noted that exempt employees include the medical examiner, Dr. Michael Caplan, a Bellone appointee, and policy specialists who handle county issues such as bus rapid transit and water quality.

Salaries of exempt employees under Bellone totaled $11.86 million in December, compared with $9.55 million in December 2012.

Average wages of exempt employees have increased since December 2012 from $78,257 to $81,769, county records show. Raises for exempt employees are tied to the contract of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, the county’s largest union, which prevents exempt employees from getting pay increases that exceed percentage hikes awarded to rank-and-file workers.

Union officials and some county legislators say the increased number of exempts is indefensible when other departments are unable to hire enough police officers, 911 dispatchers, snowplow operators, road maintenance crews and child protective service case workers.

“These are people working on quality of life issues that matter to us,” said Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley). “If you’re asking county AME workers to take cuts, you need to be willing to do the same.”

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), the legislature’s minority leader, said, “It’s not sharing the pain here with our fiscal crisis. It feels like an unfair burden is put on the working men and women of Suffolk County, especially the unionized workforce.”

“We need more boots on the ground,” said AME President Daniel Levler. “Adding managers to a low staffing situation doesn’t get more work done.”

Bellone said the only fair comparison is with the number of exempts under Levy. There were 148 exempt employees in Suffolk in December 2010. A year later, as Levy was leaving office, the number had dropped to 136, as top aides sought jobs elsewhere.

Levy announced in March 2011 that he would not seek re-election after prosecutors raised questions about his campaign financing. Levy had to turn over his $4-million campaign war chest to the Suffolk district attorney’s office.

Bellone said that when he took office in January 2012, he “slashed” the number of exempts “even further,” compared with levels at the end of Levy’s term.

Bellone’s goal was to set an example for the rest of the county workforce — that county government could and would have to do more with less, he said in an interview at the H. Lee Dennison building in Hauppauge.

“The first couple of years — some would say to our detriment — we had a bare-bones operation,” he said.

“We started bringing management back to normal levels,” he said.

He said 12 of the exempt employees he has added are necessary to manage new programs and responsibilities, or replace sworn officers in the police department with civilian employees handling communications.

Two attorneys and three other exempt employees are working at the county’s traffic court, created in 2013. Another exempt employee is working on the Fire Island dune restoration project, and there are new management positions at the medical examiner’s office and at the Suffolk Board of Ethics that were mandated by county law, Bellone said.

Records show that the largest increase in exempt employees since 2012 has come in the county executive’s office. There were 29 exempt management positions in the office in December 2016, compared with 18 in December 2012, according to payroll records.

Employment at the Suffolk legislature increased from 100 to 103 from December 2012 to December of 2016. Exempt employees at the Suffolk sheriff, county clerk and comptroller’s offices went from a combined 24 to 23. At the district attorney’s office, where all prosecutors are considered exempt employees, employment increased from 185 to 189.

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