File photo: Denise Civiletti

My last column here discussed the strain of lengthy, one-party rule in Riverhead Town Hall. Now let’s consider Suffolk County’s prolonged, one-party dominance. Years of Republican control of the Riverhead Town Board, bereft of any real checks and balances until perhaps recently, leaves us with, among other things, the mess of the EPCAL sale. So too has Democratic Party domination in Hauppauge, year after year, left us with a county smothering in financial quicksand.

Nothing illustrates Suffolk County’s mismanagement, and its fiscal bind, better than the way they handle the labor contracts with the different police unions and other county workers. It’s a separate issue whether a cop on the force for 15 years should get $200,000/year, by 2024, as just approved by the county legislature. The problem is how this and other steep commitments on the county level are made these days, and how cleverly they hide it, as it happens, time and again from the beleaguered taxpayers.

Before we get into the process of how Suffolk officials spend as they do, and keep spending excessively, reflect on this: the county is flat broke. With all the revenue they rake in, Suffolk officials continue to devise ways to cost us even more — much more (See my column of Nov. 4, 2018). Still, their fiscal analysts have reported to the county legislature’s finance committee a budget “shortfall” of more than $80 million.

The state will never step in with an oversight board as it did in Nassau County to control wild spending, simply because Democratic Party control on the NYS level would never intrude upon Democratic Party control of finances in Suffolk, no matter how obviously needed.

Note that committees of mostly Democratic county legislators are favored with token consultations from the Democratic county executive. When it comes to over-the-top spending, such as with the county’s labor contracts, there has been little committee review in the past. With the most recent labor contract package, there was none at all.

Things got interesting when the county executive was negotiating these contracts with the unions last summer. The head of one of the police unions carped about the slow progress of the talks, so he announced that he and his 1,700 members were going to boycott the county executive’s golf outing — his major, annual election campaign fundraiser. Things like this were always behind the scenes till now.

At the same campaign event the year before, this union alone had contributed $10,000, according to state campaign records. Joining this boycott were other county police unions, along with the faculty union for Suffolk Community College, the Deputy Sheriffs union, and others. See “Suffolk PBA says no to Steve Bellone golf fundraiser” (Newsday, July 1, 2018)

Back in 2015, the same county police union chose to fund almost $200,000 worth of ads and mobile billboards against Riverhead’s previous supervisor, hoping to help his GOP primary opponent without being obvious about it. It backfired.

Will the Suffolk PBA have a role to play in local races soon again? Stay tuned if the capable Southold Town supervisor talks of stepping down, then our current county legislator runs for Southold supe, and a Riverhead Town Board member runs for the open county legislative seat, one whom Suffolk’s PBA quite generously tried to help before.

Anyway, as contract negotiations between the county executive and unions continued, the unions grew more impatient, and pressed further. The PBA chief openly chided the county executive for referring to “unsustainable” health insurance costs for county workers in his state of the county address. The union chief argued that, because collective bargaining negotiations were going on, as they had been for months by then, such comments to the people of Suffolk were “inappropriate.”

So in July of 2018, he and his union announced their plan to launch an “ad blitz” against the county executive for the latter’s failing to negotiate “seriously.” He added that this hit-blitz would be on “multiple fronts,” and that it would “last as long as it needs to.” He further told the press that he had already retained services for this purpose.

Then came the mailer.

Over Labor Day Weekend last September, a mailer went out headlined “Tax, Spend, Repeat,” and “Taxes, Taxes & More Taxes.” Newsday reported that this mailer attacked the county executive by name and unflattering photos as a “liberal,” with “free spending ways,” saying he has imposed $100 million in new fees since taking office, raising county taxes “every single year since becoming county executive,” and has layered on $100 million in additional fees that are “nothing more than taxes in disguise.” The mailer mocked the county executive’s self-description as a “different kind of Democrat.”

This mailer did not identify its source. All it had was a Hauppauge PO Box. Newsday asked various party leaders, candidates, public officials and others if they had a role in it, and all said no. When the police union chief was asked, however, right after the mailer went out, whether he or the union was connected to it, he replied “l’m not going to make any further comment on it.” It is unknown how many of them were sent.

For his part, the county executive meekly laid low. He had an aide make a brief remark that the mailer was “cowardly political nonsense,” then unwittingly (or was it?) harmonizing with the union chief that there’s “not much more to be said about it.”

So did this pressure tactic have any effect? You bet it did. And this is where prolonged party domination comes in.

The contract negotiations picked up speed. In exchange for hefty raises, mostly well above cost-of-living increases, union concession emerged, where each worker, uniformed and civilian, would contribute to the cost of health insurance between $1,500. and $3,500.

The Democratic county executive sent the 11 union contract agreements over for approval to the Democratically controlled legislature, with an understanding that was as clear as it was hushed: approve the entire package, do it fast, and shut up about it. And don’t worry about the handful of Republicans serving on the legislature (5 out of 18), they know it’s our done deal and any objection from them, even a question, will be political suicide.

So at the county legislature’s regular meeting last month, the legislators received and saw for the first time the proposed contracts for all 11 county unions exactly 36 minutes before the meeting started, according to two legislators.

As for any committee review, the CE made quick work of that: a certificate of necessity, a device intended for emergencies, was attached to the package. A CN requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature for voting on the package then and there, bypassing committee review, public comment, and time — any time — for study. Needless to say, that sailed through 17 to 1, as did all 11 hugely expensive, virtually unscrutinized contracts. Think of that — only one dissenting vote (from Legisator Rob Trotta, Republican of Fort Salonga.)

What was the hurry? Was it that the CE’s next golf outing was a matter of weeks away?

Interesting, is it not, that legislative committees are actively engaged is a widely publicized probe into how a county police officer, who is related to another PD official, could be transferred to a coveted job in the DA’s office without a nepotism waiver? But when it comes to six-year contract commitments whose true costs cry out for scrutiny, the legislators are as hushed as the CE. They won’t meet about it, and they won’t talk about it. They look the other way as their own budget review office hastily cobbled together a report on the contracts that the legislators barely had time to read before approving them, if they read it at all.

Had there been committee review of such enormous contract commitments in a fiscally stressed county, they might have delved into the fairness of a fixed-dollar range for health insurance payments from lower paid workers. More importantly, such review might have uncovered new contract details — costly ones —  that came to light only after the county legislature’s overwhelming approval, again.

A compelling irony with this mailed hit piece is how it criticized the county executive for his hefty tax and fee policies, when he did so largely to pay for earlier contract giveaways.

And a deeper, dismaying irony is that most taxpayers would not attend a politician’s golf outing — but we sure will pay for one of them.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg