Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to save $1.6 million by freezing pay for political employees and attorneys making more than $75,000 annually failed to pass the Legislature late Tuesday night, as more than three dozen county prosecutors filled the Riverhead legislative building to say the plan unfairly targeted them.
Automatic “step” pay increases for 211 employees, which average about 4.2 percent, will go into effect on July 1.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) made a motion to effectively withdraw the bill shortly before midnight after caucusing with Democrats amid flagging support.
Bellone had pitched the freeze as the first part of a plan that includes stopping automatic pay raises for elected officials and a proposal for exempt employees to pay 15 percent of health care costs to the county.
Gregory said the bill freezing pay raises came forward first only because of the timing of the raises.
“There will be an overall plan where everyone, or a lot of people, will be impacted,” Gregory said.
District Attorney Division Chief Ed Heilig told lawmakers the proposal was a “morale killer” that would block raises for 139 prosecutors.
“It is not fair for you to place a financial burden on the backs of exempt employees when the fiscal crisis facing the county is driven by union contracts that you knowingly entered into,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Michelle Pitman said “this bill is targeting us. It’s blatantly unfair.”
Bellone spokesman Jason Elan called the freeze “a necessary first step of the county executive’s fiscal accountability plan.”
But Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said the pay freeze is “nibbling around the edges” as the county faces a structural budget deficit of $163 million to $165 million and credit-rating downgrades. He and Gregory both said Bellone should negotiate larger savings with police unions and present a more sweeping plan.
Step raises for so-called exempt workers, many with political ties, averaged about 4.4 percent in 2016, Newsday has reported. They would go back into effect in July 2018 without further action.
McCaffrey, who heads the Republican caucus, said he planned to oppose the freeze to push for a more comprehensive solution.
The pay freeze “gives the county executive the ability to say he did something, when he didn’t really do anything,” McCaffrey said.
Gregory had said while he supported a broader deal, the freeze had to be passed Tuesday before the raises were scheduled to go into effect.
The pay freeze is the first in a series of budget proposals expected over the next two months that would save the county $2.875 million through 2018, officials have said. Bellone has also ordered the county departments to withhold $8.5 million in county spending.
Other proposals include freezing automatic annual pay raises for elected officials and requiring exempt employees to pay 15 percent of health care costs.
Bellone and the county Legislature have raised more than $70 million in fees and hiked property taxes to pay for police services. Despite that, Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings agency earlier this month lowered the county’s credit rating.
Republican district attorney candidate Ray Perini showed up to the meeting to offer support for the prosecutors. He called Bellone’s proposal an “outrage.”
“I don’t see how the county closes its budget crisis on their backs,” he said.