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Suffolk bill targets health care changes

Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer William J. Lindsay

Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer William J. Lindsay listens during a legislature meeting in Hauppauge. (Aug. 3, 2010) Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Every nonunion employee in Suffolk County, including department chiefs and elected officials, would have to contribute at least 15 percent to their health care under a proposal unveiled Thursday.

Democratic lawmakers will introduce a bill requiring 441 exempt workers to pay 15, 20 or 25 percent, based on salary. The measure would produce $1.2 million in annual savings.

"This isn't going to solve the problem all by itself," said Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), referring to Suffolk's $557 million deficit projection through 2013. "It's one little cog."

County Executive Steve Bellone used his State of the County address Wednesday to say he and his 16 top aides had volunteered to pay up to 25 percent of their medical coverage, for estimated savings of $83,000 a year. Lindsay acknowledged the action was symbolic, but said it sent a message to labor unions whose health care concessions could plug the budget gap by as much as $25 million annually.

"We don't want to displace the collective bargaining process," he said. "This is to encourage them to come to the table for meaningful proposals for recurring savings. We're open to any ideas."

Dan Farrell, president-elect of Suffolk's Association of Municipal Employees, couldn't be reached Thursday. Before Bellone's address, he said he wouldn't comment on union contributions because his focus is on avoiding summer layoffs.

Bellone is revising a list of more than 400 positions, across multiple unions, for which funding ends June 30. He has struck a deal with Suffolk police's officer, detective and supervisor unions, saving 38 jobs with a retirement incentive that guarantees full health care.

"We'd like to see some kind of early retirement incentive, just like the police have gotten," Farrell said Wednesday.

Legislative Minority Leader John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said Suffolk's nine labor unions "must assist" in bridging the long-term gap between county revenue and expenses.

"The feeling is that this is inevitable," Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said of employee health care contributions. "Frankly, government should have been doing this years ago."

If the bill passes, Lindsay said he'll move to eliminate a short-term cost-saving measure that, since February, has deferred a portion of exempt employees' pay each week.

Suffolk health Commissioner James L. Tomarken would pay 25 percent of his health care under the Democrats' proposal.

"For us, it's a reasonable way to help," Tomarken said, adding several of his private-sector jobs required similar contributions. "I think it sets a good example."

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