Suffolk Executive Steve Levy

Suffolk Executive Steve Levy Credit: Howard Schnapp

The time is ripe for the Suffolk County Legislature and County Executive Steve Levy to do a little give and take on managing the county budget.

The lawmakers resoundingly decided that the five countywide elected officials - district attorney, comptroller, sheriff, treasurer and clerk - should be able to control their own hiring within the budget. Levy should comply and move on.

But it wouldn't hurt lawmakers to give him some management flexibility by letting him eliminate steps, automatic annual pay increases, for managers and make new managers contribute to their health care. That's a direction the county must take.

Levy fought hard against the legislature's effort to give more autonomy to the five officials. His argument was that he needed the authority to manage the county's spending and save money by not filling jobs that are in the budget.

But even Levy acknowledged that the potential savings from holding back the five officials' hiring was small as a percentage of the total budget: about $2.5 million a year. Surely, he can find a way to save that amount within the departments that are entirely under his control.

For their part, the five officials say they can't run their agencies independently if Levy won't let them fill budgeted positions. In the case of the comptroller and the district attorney, who might need to investigate or audit a county executive, an executive's power to tighten their hiring can impede proper oversight.

The legislature passed a carefully crafted bill that allows the county executive to appeal to lawmakers in dire fiscal situations or natural disasters and suspend temporarily the hiring power of the five electeds. And the legislation did not abridge Levy's power to submit a budget in the first place. Still, he vetoed the bill. The legislature overrode Levy's veto 16-1.

That should end it. Levy should accept the legislature's near-unanimous decision gracefully and learn to live with it - invoking the new law's built-in exceptions only when really necessary, and not frivolously.

Meanwhile, Levy wants the legislature to let him achieve some savings by eliminating the automatic increases for all managers and getting health-care contributions from new ones. This includes those in the legislature and the five agencies. The savings would be under $1 million, Levy admits. But it would let him take a tiny step on a journey the county must make: asking its employees to help pay for their health care.

That would be symbolic, but the truly significant savings can only come when the union employees agree in collective bargaining to contribute to their health care. That's fair and necessary for the county's long-term fiscal health.

Levy's real gain would be credibility in collective bargaining, but it wouldn't give him an unfair edge against the unions. So, why not let him try? The two branches have battled fiercely on many issues. A little give on these two could build trust, and maybe lead to greater budget stability.


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