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Suffolk Legislature approves asking voters to boost terms

Suffolk County Legislator Samuel Gonzalez during a meeting

Suffolk County Legislator Samuel Gonzalez during a meeting of the Suffolk Legislature. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Suffolk County legislators approved asking voters to double their terms from two years to four years Tuesday night, in an action split down party lines.

The measure, Legis. Samuel Gonzalez (D-Brentwood) said, would have to be endorsed by voters in a ballot measure in November. 

“We’re not voting on this to give ourselves four years. We’re giving the opportunity to our constituents to make that decision come November,” said Gonzalez, the measure's sponsor.

During about five months of public hearings on the measure, few residents spoke on it. The legislature has largely avoided voting on significant measures or closing public hearings while meetings are held remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the measure had to have been approved by August in order to get on the ballot, an official said.

Democrats, who supported the term increase, said extending term limits will give lawmakers more time to finish projects and focus their energies on governing instead of reelection campaigns, which start a year after each election.

“It’s tough to get anything done in government in two years,” Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said. “Four years is enough time to effectuate change in government.”

The term extension would begin after the 2021 general election if approved by voters. Legislators would still have a 12-year term limit, except for eight legislators who would be in their final term at the time of the change and would get an additional 2 years, legislature’s counsel Sarah Simpson said.

Republicans, who questioned giving some legislators 14-years in office, said a two-year term allows voters to more quickly vote someone out of office.

Legislators, who work part time, earn about $100,000 a year.

A representative for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who would have to sign the legislation, was not available Tuesday night for comment.

Lawmakers Tuesday also approved a total of $400,000 in back pay for more than 200 police 911 operators and dispatchers who said in a lawsuit they had worked extra shifts without compensation for years.

The legislature voted unanimously to authorize the county to pay the judgment in the federal class action lawsuit. It was filed by public safety dispatchers David Smith, Dawn Ruggiero and Jodi Pagel in June 2016, court records show.

Emergency complaint operators, who answer 911 calls, and public safety dispatchers, who send the calls to police officers, worked six extra shifts a year without compensation since at least 2010 because of how shifts were scheduled, according to the lawsuit.

“For days, they should’ve been compensated at an overtime rate,” Deputy County Attorney Susan Flynn told legislators Tuesday. “We felt there was county exposure on this.”

There were more than 240 plaintiffs in the case, Flynn said.

But legislators voted 16-2 to table a bill to allow Suffolk to borrow to pay the judgment. Lawmakers expressed concern about interest costs that potentially could reach $100,000.

Eric Naughton, Bellone's budget director, said the county most likely would have to make spending cuts to fund the judgment if lawmakers ultimately reject borrowing. 

“Every time the legislature refuses to bond to pay for an eligible expense, we will need to either cut services or increase revenue,” Naughton said in a statement after the vote.

The county is facing an estimated revenue shortfall of between $300 million and $590 million this year because of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, according to budget reports.

Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said he hoped to persuade legislators to approve the borrowing at the next legislative meeting on June 23, because "we simply don't have the cash to pay this."

Naughton said the county budget office is reviewing all discretionary spending. Bellone last week directed all county departments to identify 5% in possible cuts before he proposes the 2021 budget in September.

Legislators had little choice but to approve the $400,000 payment because it was in the form of a judgment against the county, officials said.

Flynn said the county offered to settle the case through a judgment to avoid paying costly Attorneys’ fees. 

Comptroller John Kennedy, whose office pays county bills, said, "We will pay this judgment, but we are engaged in an ever increasing juggling act at this point."

"Inevitably one of these plates is going to fall and break," Kennedy said.

Attorneys for the 911 dispatchers and operators were not immediately available for comment.

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