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Levy vetoes set up showdown with legislature

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has vetoed a number of bills, including one that would have barred persons with criminal records from doing title insurance work for the county, setting up potential override votes when lawmakers meet Tuesday after their July break.

Levy vetoed the title measure, which also would have required the county to set up a rotating pool of at least 10 title firms for county work, because he said it "removes all the discretion" to choose "the most logical firm," based on its experience and the properties involved. Noting that the county puts no limit on other experts it retains, such as surveyors and land appraisers, Levy said, "This legislation purports to correct something that has not been a problem."

The Suffolk County Legislature approved the bill after disclosures in Newsday showed that title firms that received $7 million in county work had also contributed financially to Levy.

The bill to ban people with criminal records from getting title work followed a Newsday story that Suffolk, on Levy's recommendation, hired a company associated with a longtime friend of his. Levy said he recommended the friend, Ethan Ellner, in 2005 because he wanted to give him a "second chance." Records show Ellner received about $85,000 from the county for title work.

In October 1997, records show, Ellner pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion. He was sentenced to 1 month in prison and 3 years' supervised release and got a $5,000 fine, according to court records.

Levy's spokesman, Mark Smith, said existing state licensing rules are sufficient. "There has never been a suggestion that we have been overcharged or underserved by any title company," he said.

Levy, in a Hauppauge news conference Wednesday, criticized lawmakers for passing four other bills that he said could add to the budget when Suffolk is still struggling with the recession.

"We should be looking for resolutions that save money, not ones that spend more money," he said.

Presiding Officer William Lindsay said he expected the legislature to override the vetoes when it meets next week.

Levy conceded most of the bills were approved by wide margins. "My hope is they come to their senses and we can convince seven legislators to control costs," he said.

Fiscal measures Levy vetoed include one that required the county police department to get legislative approval before instituting major policy changes, and a bill that would have required the use of light-duty officers instead of civilians in some department jobs. Both would hamstring efficiency efforts, Levy said.

He also vetoed measures requiring speedy processing of contracts and payments to nonprofit groups, and another that would have forced the county to pay interest if payments are more than 30 days late. Levy said he has streamlined contracting, and interest penalties could cost the county $100,000 a year.

Levy also vetoed an ethics measure that would have allowed the Suffolk Ethics Commission to hire its own independent counsel, rather than rely on the county attorney's office. Levy called in "an unnecessary cost on taxpayers when they can least afford it."

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