As tributes flowed for outgoing Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan, certified letters arrived Thursday at the homes of an undisclosed number of town workers, informing them their services will not be needed after Jan. 1.

Incoming Supervisor Tom Croci defended the letter as an attempt to clarify employees' positions in as "considerate" and "professional" a way as possible.

"The language does not terminate anyone, because we do not yet have the authority," said Croci, who officially takes office Sunday. "It's a heads-up to employees in language consistent with that of new [Suffolk] County Executive Steve Bellone, as a courtesy to employees."

The letter's authority was in dispute last night. Outgoing Islip labor relations director Rob Finnegan said: "It's a distinction without a difference -- it's a firing letter; they're splitting hairs."

The letter went not only to employees whose hiring is at the supervisor's discretion -- but also to several departmental workers. "The Town Board and Supervisor can't supersede the authority of commissioners or department heads who have the power to hire and fire all their employees in this jurisdiction," Finnegan said.

Croci, who took his official oath of office Thursday , declined to specify the number of letters sent, until all employees had a chance to receive them.

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The new administration plans to hold its inauguration Monday, and the new board is expected to vote on appointments of top management at its first meeting Thursday.

As word of the letter spread, more than 60 people gathered to honor Nolan in town hall. "He's a loving father and husband, but his real love is the Town of Islip," said Nolan's driver, Frank Genco, 58, of East Islip, who is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor and received a letter from the Croci team.

Others, including deputy chief of staff Amy Keyes, 27, spoke of the lessons learned from Nolan. "I made mistakes, but I was never afraid to try because of the way he handled it," said Keyes, recalling how Nolan once admonished: "You did the wrong thing, but that's OK; this is how we learn."

Nolan, visibly moved, told those present, "The employees are the town. This is a room full of talent." He warned Croci's administration would do well to judge workers on "what people bring to the dance," not political affiliations.

Nolan, a Democrat who has not finalized his next job, said he "didn't die on Election Day" and would remain "the loyal opposition" to Croci's 5-0 Republican/Conservative board.

His final words to the workers: "We did a really great job, we accomplished tremendous things in difficult times. I'm incredibly proud and I want you to know how much I thank you for what we did and who we are."