Suffolk County legislators voted Wednesday to suspend automatic cost-of-living pay raises for themselves and other elected county officials for the next five years.
The total annual savings of less than $26,000 for the 18 legislators and the county executive, clerk, comptroller and sheriff, however, will put only a tiny dent in the county’s $130 million structural deficit.
The lawmakers, who earn $101,000 a year, voted 16-2 for the resolution. They conceded it may be a small step, said it was one of many that must be taken to close the budget gap.
“Having an automatic pay increase does not send the right fiscal message or recognize the fiscal position the county is in,” said Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), the measure’s sponsor.
“If you don’t start somewhere you’ll never reduce the budget,” said Krupski.
Republican Legis. Robert Trotta, of Fort Salonga, called the move an “an election year ploy” by Democrats. Trotta branded the measure as “delusional” because it will have no effect on the county’s fiscal problems, but voted for it anyway.
The salary freeze would begin with next year’s budget, and cover county lawmakers and other elected officials when their terms expire. The Suffolk district attorney, whose salary is set by state law, would not be affected.
Robert Lipp, budget review director, said raises under the law have averaged 1.09 percent annually over the last four years and a five-year freeze would save $154,737.
The measure would suspend the law that automatically sets elected officials’ pay raises based on regional cost-of-living figures. It would not preclude the legislature or County Executive Steve Bellone, who has voluntarily frozen his salary since taking office, from proposing raises as part of the budget, on which lawmakers would have to vote.
The proposal also would have no impact on lawmakers who already reduce their pay voluntarily. Currently, six legislators — two Republicans and four Democrats — take less than the $100,854 salary for county lawmakers. Their salaries range from $96,570 to $100,272.
Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip), who voted no, warned the temporary freeze will become permanent because lawmakers will fear voting to restore raises. He noted that state legislators, who earn $79,000 a year, have gone without a raise for two decades, prompting many to exit.
“It’s the wrong way to go,” he said adding, “No one in the public is demanding it.”
The other opponent, Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), an attorney who takes a salary of $100,272, agreed with Barraga and noted that lawmakers can opt to take less salary.
But Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Oakdale) said the pay freeze was necessary to show lawmakers are willing to sacrifice while county unions face the possibility of having to pay part of their health care costs. “How can you tell them to go without raises when we are giving them to ourselves?” Lindsay said.
Also Wednesday, county legislators voted to allow Giovanna and Domenico Morabito of Holtsville, who are facing personal hardships, to recover the home they lost for unpaid taxes. The county would have to return the home if the family pays the $141,000 in overdue taxes, penalties, rent within 60 days.
Domenico Morabito has Alzheimers, their daughter Katheryn, 36, has Down syndrome and Giovanna Morabito had breast cancer this year, according to their attorney, Lawrence Spada. Although some legislators expressed concern that the legislation would set a legal precedent that could lead to other pleas for relief, Legislative Counsel George Nolan said he did not expect a flood of lawsuits.
The legislature also approved an initial $750,000 to clean up West Hills county park in Dix Hills from the effects of illegal toxic dumping.
County Parks Commissioner Philip Berdolt warned that the price of the clean up could go as high as $5 million, although he expressed hope that Suffolk County could recoup the costs through the district attorney’s office, which is investigating the dumping case.