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Two high-ranking Smithtown officials retire after taking buyouts

Russell Barnett, left, Smithtown's environment and waterways director,

Russell Barnett, left, Smithtown's environment and waterways director, and John Valentine, the town's chief of public safety, are both retiring. Credit: Newsday

Two high-ranking Smithtown officials have taken buyouts and retired on Friday, Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said in an interview.

Public Safety Department director John Valentine and Environment and Waterways Department director Russell Barnett had worked for the town for decades and were instrumental in creating the departments they led for years.

Rating agency Moody’s Investors Service in February assigned Smithtown an Aaa bond rating, citing its “strong financial position, large wealthy tax base and manageable fixed costs.” Wehrheim, though, citing the strictures of the state-imposed tax cap, said the buyouts were needed “for the fiscal future of the town.” 

Town personnel officer Eileen Tropea did not respond to the offer and assessor Peter Johnson declined it, said Wehrheim, who described all four as “top employees, highly paid, consummate professionals. All have done an excellent job for town government and for the taxpayers of this town.”

The town may also offer buyouts in the future to highly paid blue-collar employees, Wehrheim said.

Employee salaries and benefits account for 62% of the town’s $112.3 million 2020 budget, and Valentine and Barnett are among the town’s highest-paid employees.

Valentine received $181,961 in total compensation in 2018, the town’s highest-paid employee, according to the most recent payroll supplied to Newsday. In a brief email, he said he had worked for the town since 1976, with a break in service.

Barnett received $172,348 in total compensation. He was the town’s third-highest compensated employee after planner David Flynn, who has since retired, and has worked for the town since 1984, according to the payroll.

Both will be paid $2,000 for each year of uninterrupted service, bringing the buyout to $64,000 for Valentine and $70,000 for Barnett, Paul Rubano, the town's budget director, wrote in an email. They will also receive payment for unused sick and vacation time, he said.

The buyouts will save the town $254,084 over three years, Rubano said, as the men are replaced by lower-paid staffers. The town will go through the civil service system to find replacements.

“We are solvent and strong, but if we don’t take these kinds of measures, then it would get out of hand,” Councilman Thomas McCarthy said, adding that there are “people in the pipeline” capable of succeeding both men.

Valentine and Barnett did not respond to interview requests this week.

Their roles in town government were considerable. Valentine oversaw roughly 100 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees, including uniformed park rangers, investigators and bay constables. Under his leadership the department assumed a prominent role in emergency response, expanded its communications center to provide dispatch to several local volunteer fire departments and even, for a time, ran the town animal shelter.

Former Town Councilman Robert Creighton, a retired Suffolk County police commissioner and district attorney’s chief investigator, said under Valentine the department had provided a valuable supplement to the police.

“They were able to take care of things on a local level” like quality of life issues and low-level offenses, he said.

Barnett, the town’s top environmental and waste management official, famously persuaded former Town Supervisor Patrick Vecchio to take a chance on compressed natural gas. When the town required its garbage and recycling contractors to make the switch from diesel in 2007, it made national news and other municipalities followed, seeking cleaner, quieter service.

Less obvious to outsiders was his role in providing the Town Council with environmental analysis. Every major commercial or residential project, land use plan or rules change in the town was accompanied by an environmental-impact statement whose creation was guided by his department. The findings of those statements can clear the way for development or force lengthy revisions to plans.

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