Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has dropped his plan to make aide Thomas Vaughn county parks commissioner and is proposing to install deputy public works commissioner Philip Berdolt instead, while putting Vaughn in Berdolt’s current job.
Bellone aides say the double switch is being made to save $17,000 a year in salary as the county faces a shortfall in the upcoming 2017 budget of more than $200 million.
However, Bellone’s original plan to install Vaughn first announced last May was to have saved even more — nearly $20,000.
“We’re still getting a saving of $17,000 and we’re happy to achieve that kind of reduction,” said Bellone spokesman Scott Martella when asked about the disparity.
Martella acknowledged that Berdolt has no direct park experience, but said he has worked on many parks capital projects and that his public works experience “would create synergies between the two agencies.”
Bellone named Vaughn as commissioner-in-waiting in May amid other high level promotions, as a way to give him a three month transition to work with parks commissioner Gregory Dawson, who retires Sept. 1.
Vaughn, who also had no previous parks experience, was working in parks’ West Sayville headquarters as part of that transition until two weeks ago. Vaughn returned temporarily to the executive office, and began work at public works in Yaphank Wednesday. Berdolt also began his transition to parks Wednesday and becomes acting commissioner when Dawson leaves. Neither Vaughn nor Berdolt returned calls for comment.
Several county sources say the change came after Vaughn’s appointment was opposed by senior parks superintendent James Barr, who had worked closely with Bellone’s wife Tracy when she was deputy parks commissioner.
Barr, who is retiring in November, declined to comment on the issue as did Martella. Tracy Bellone, the Babylon deputy parks commissioner, did not return calls for comment.
Some saw the move as an attempt by Bellone to bolster himself politically in Babylon in his ongoing struggle with Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman and town supervisor.
Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, head of the GOP caucus, said the parks changes were part of a “ shell game” to give raises to Bellone loyalists.
“They are playing follow the bouncing ball,” said McCaffrey, of Lindenhurst. “They move so many people around it’s hard to follow, but taxpayers end up paying higher salaries.”
Under the revised plan, Berdolt, a $151,000 a year deputy public works commissioner, would become the $156,000 a year parks commissioner. He will make $14,000 a year more than Dawson, who has been a top parks official in the county and in Islip Town for 16 years.
Before coming to the county, Berdolt had worked as Babylon public works commissioner from 2002 to 2012 when Bellone was town supervisor. His late mother-in-law was also town general services commissioner.
Vaughn, a $116,000 a year county executive assistant IV, will make $121,000 a year as deputy public works commissioner for administration — $2,000 less than he would have gotten at parks.
Vaughn, a Republican who has worked for the county since 2000, has served as a liaison to the legislature and lately helped oversee departmental operations for Bellone.
While Vaughn is not an engineer, Martella said it is unnecessary for his new job. Only public works commissioner Gil Anderson and a deputy, who would fill in during his absence, are required to be engineers under state law.
Martella said Bellone will file a resolution to confirm Berdolt’s appointment at the county legislature’s Sept. 7 meeting, with a vote on the nomination likely at the Oct. 5 meeting.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory, (D-Amityville), said he was unaware of Bellone’s switch, but said “I think the world of both of them.”
Gregory ssaid he expects lawmakers to want to hear Berdolt’s plans for county parks; Republicans are likely to question the reasons behind Bellone’s last-minute switch.