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Gaughran, Kennedy debate who'd be better watchdog

Suffolk County Comptroller candidate James Gaughran speaks during

Suffolk County Comptroller candidate James Gaughran speaks during a debate with his opponent John Kennedy in Smithtown on Oct. 21, 2014. Credit: Ed Betz

In the heated contest for Suffolk County comptroller, Republican John M. Kennedy Jr. and Democrat James Gaughran battled in a Smithtown debate last week over who would be the most independent watchdog for county taxpayers.

"One-party government is never good for anyone," Kennedy said, referring to Democrats' control of both the executive and legislative branches in Suffolk.

Kennedy said he has "worked across the aisle all my career," and vowed to "be a strong voice, whether it is a Democratic county executive or a Democratic county legislature."

Gaughran, the Suffolk Water Authority chairman, countered that "you have to make sure it does not become a partisan political office, but I do not believe you have to have a Republican comptroller with a Democratic county executive."

Gaughran also said he would not take a county car if elected and will freeze his salary at the current $189,000 for the next four years. Holding up his car keys, he said, "I want to lead by example."

Both political veterans are in a bare-knuckles brawl to replace term-limited Republican Comptroller Joseph Sawicki in a powerful but arcane numbers-crunching post.

The comptroller has wide-ranging powers to oversee the county's fiscal operations and borrowing of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The office also audits payrolls, county agencies and contractors for possible misspending.

The race is key because the next comptroller could take over operations of the county treasurer's office, starting in 2018, if voters approve a merger of the two offices in a ballot proposition on Nov. 4.

The contest has also turned highly personal.

Gaughran has sent repeated mailings attacking Kennedy for nepotism for giving pay increases to his wife, who works for him as an aide. The ads portray Kennedy's office wallpapered with $100 bills, with an easy chair made of cash and a "personal cash machine." Leslie Kennedy made $79,864 in 2013.

Kennedy called the mailings "heinous, offensive and reprehensible," saying his wife works long hours. Kennedy says the hiring was authorized by the county legislature under Suffolk's nepotism law.

Gaughran is pressing the attacks. He says the legislature should have been asked to approve a second nepotism resolution when Leslie Kennedy went from part time to full time. Gaughran said that if elected, he will seek a state comptroller's opinion on whether she should continue to be paid.

Kennedy also has attacked Gaughran's fiscal credentials, saying he was part of a Democratic county legislature that failed to stop former County Executive Patrick Halpin's 1989 budget, which contained a record-breaking tax increase. The budget raised property taxes by 39 percent to 49 percent in Western Suffolk towns and up to 170 percent on the East End.

Kennedy also assailed Gaughran's $32,000-a-year water authority salary, noting that the board met for only 32 hours in the past year. "That's $1,000 an hour," Kennedy said.

Gaughran said as chairman he is in contact with authority officials on a daily basis, sometimes in the early hours of the morning when water mains break or other emergencies occur. He said he pushed as a lawmaker to curtail spending in the Halpin budget.

Gaughran says he wants to overhaul the comptroller's office. He says he would create a 24-hour hotline to report waste, audit county perks and start a fraud unit. He also wants to undertake a joint initiative with the state comptroller to root out Medicaid abuse.

Kennedy calls some of Gaughran's proposals duplicative, and said his Medicaid initiative would be unworkable because the state has reserved such probes for itself.

Kennedy said he would work to increase the number of in-house audits. He said he asked Sawicki to audit the 35 cent phone surcharge, which found Verizon overcharged the county $300,000 by claiming some fees were uncollectable without data to back it up.

Gaughran backs the comptroller/treasurer merger. He estimates it will save $800,000 a year and says it could serve as a model for other consolidations that would help the county close its structural deficit.

Kennedy opposes the merger, saying savings would be $200,000 a year at most. He says the consolidation would be a "recipe for disaster" because it would mix fiscal functions that ought to remain separate.

"It's axiomatic that you never give the power to audit to the same person who has power to sign" the checks, he said.

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