Suffolk Water Authority chairman James Gaughran Monday launched a campaign for a job with an uncertain future: Suffolk County comptroller.
Gaughran said he will file to create a fundraising committee this week and formally announce his run this month.
Gaughran, 57, who has also served as a Huntington Town Board member and a Suffolk County legislator, said he has the management skills to make county government more efficient. "This is a job where you have to follow the dollar to make sure none of it is wasted," he said.
The fate of the comptroller's position is unclear, however.
Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone and the Democratic-controlled legislature have vowed to seek a referendum on merging the office with the county treasurer, to save money. A push to put the issue on the ballot last year was halted after Republican Treasurer Angie Carpenter, whose job would have been axed, won a suit challenging the referendum on procedural grounds.
Republican Comptroller Joseph Sawicki is term-limited and cannot seek re-election.
Jesse Garcia, Brookhaven Republican chairman, called Gaughran "just another pawn of . . . the Bellone administration" who would not be a watchdog of tax money. He said Gaughran was among Democratic lawmakers who voted in 1989 to raise county property taxes 39 to 140 percent.
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, disputed Garcia, saying Republicans created fiscal problems by using up surpluses, leaving Democrats a gaping budget hole to fill. Gaughran "was part a bipartisan group that helped solve the problem," Schaffer said.
Schaffer said Gaughran "will make a terrific candidate because of his experience overseeing the hundreds of employees at the water authority," and his decades as a lawyer and public official.
Former Conservative lawmaker Michael O'Donohoe, Suffolk commissioner of jurors, said "as legislators we had our differences, but when it came to the fiscal crisis . . . he could put the politics aside when we were dealing with government."
Gaughran, a water authority member since 2008 and chairman since 2010, joins Brookhaven's Republican Tax Receiver Louis Marcoccia in the comptroller's race. Marcoccia said he deposited $150,000 of his own funds into his campaign account Monday "to show my commitment" to the race. He said he sent out an outlined plan to party committee members to raise $600,000, half from his own funds. Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle said he is also seriously considering making the race. Party officials say LaValle has agreed to abstain from the candidate-screening process in the comptroller's race as long as he is a candidate. LaValle did not return calls for comment.
Gaughran, a lawyer from Northport, said he "supports the concept of a merged office" and will campaign in favor of the issue. But he added, "it's hard to comment on anything that is just speculation" since no new bill has emerged.
Gaughran said once the election is held, it would be difficult to put an appointed interim official in charge of the merged agency prior to an election to pick a chief in 2015. "I don't think that is a scenario anyone would put forward. You really need an elected official to be in place," he said.
Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Oakdale), the resolution's sponsor, said a final version is still "being tweaked" and probably won't be filed until the May 13 legislative meeting. He said the transition issue remains unsettled. "That's the major piece we're trying to iron out," he said.