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Bellone says he'll try again on comptroller-treasurer merger

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone releases and talks

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone releases and talks about the county's budget at his office in the Dennision Buiding in Hauppauge. (Sept. 20, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone will again seek a referendum to merge the elected offices of comptroller and treasurer -- but not until 2014.

Bellone, a Democrat, on Wednesday characterized a recent state Court of Appeals decision that knocked the referendum off the Nov. 5 ballot as a "technicality" related to the authorizing legislation.

Bellone said residents still should decide the matter, even if it's not until next November's election.

"It's unfortunate voters have been denied the right to vote on this next month, but they'll have the power to vote for candidates committed to putting this initiative forward next year," said Bellone, who will lead a political rally Thursday with Democratic county legislature candidates who support a new referendum. "It comes down to, 'Do you support consolidating government or don't you?' "

The Court of Appeals found on Oct. 8 that the administration had improperly altered the original language of the merger proposal after it had been published in legal notices. The referendum asked voters to OK the merger for the purpose of "streamlining and improving government efficiency" -- language that opponents called leading.

The original wording promised $1 million annual savings, but was removed after Bellone revised the estimate to $833,000 in salaries and benefits from eliminated positions.

Told Wednesday of Bellone's plan to revisit the referendum, Treasurer Angie Carpenter said she'll start a new four-year term in January and believes her job can't legally be altered during that time.

Bellone's initial merger effort would have eliminated Carpenter's position and four others on her staff, and folded the remaining employees into the office of Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, also a Republican.

Sawicki must leave office next year due to term limits, but would have become interim head of the new department in 2014 and been allowed to run for election as the county's new chief financial officer. Had the referendum passed, Carpenter, who lost to Bellone in the 2011 county executive race, wouldn't have been able to serve her final four-year term.

Carpenter filed suit in September, about six weeks after county lawmakers voted 12-3 to authorize the referendum. On Wednesday, Carpenter criticized Bellone for hiring outside law firms to defend against her suit. County officials said the attorneys' fees amounted to more than $50,000.

"They said this was about saving money, so I hope the money spent on those law firms would be reimbursed to taxpayers," Carpenter said.

But Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Carpenter should reimburse taxpayers. Schneider said the county attorney's office couldn't be used because it represents Carpenter and other public officials.

"She sued to stop a law adopted by a supermajority of the Suffolk County Legislature, in order to prevent voters from having a choice," Schneider said. "She is entirely responsible and should be ashamed of herself for suing the county."

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