JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, center, listens to a 2012 presentation on the county’s fiscal situation.
Suffolk County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki pushed back this week against claims that a proposal to merge two county financial offices is politically motivated, saying the plan will save the cash-strapped county about $833,000 per year and make county government more efficient.
Mr. Sawicki, a Republican from Southold, said the merger, which would combine the county treasurer’s and comptroller’s offices, makes fiscal sense.
“In these extremely difficult financial times facing every municipality and school district across the country, the county has to pursue any and every avenue of cost savings,” he said in an interview this week. “A consolidation of two financial offices in the county is definitely an idea whose time has come.”
The comptroller said residents want a “meaner and a leaner government” that works more efficiently, adding that the combined departments would total about 100 employees. Suffolk is the only county in New York State in which comptroller and treasurer are both elective positions, he said.
Voters will make the final decision on the plan when they vote on the referendum this fall.
“This is simply a taxpayer issue and the good thing is the taxpayer will get [to make] a decision on this issue,” he said.
County Treasurer Angie Carpenter — another Republican who challenged current County Executive Steve Bellone for his seat in 2011 — has come out against the proposal, arguing that the merger would weaken the office’s ability to independently oversee county finances. She has also said the consolidation is designed to eliminate her from office and allow Mr. Sawicki to run again in 2014, circumventing his current term limits.
Mr. Sawicki said none of the criticisms hold water. He provided letters from independent auditors stating that control over county finances would not be damaged by a merger.
He also disputed claims made by Ms. Carpenter that the merger is a political ploy, noting that he is a Republican while Mr. Bellone is a Democrat.
Mr. Sawicki said the original plan was to have an appointed official take over the combined position in 2014, but that was scrapped. He said he was approached by the Legislature, not by Mr. Bellone, to continue in the position.
“It’s unfortunate that [Ms. Carpenter] is making this such a personal argument,” Mr. Sawicki said. “I prefer to stick to the merits of consolidation and the savings it brings to the taxpayer.”
Mr. Sawicki admits that he opposed a similar plan when it was floated six years ago by then-county executive Steve Levy. But he says times have changed. In 2006, the county was operating on a $155 million surplus, he said; last year, the county ran up a $154 million deficit.
“Now it’s a whole different world,” Mr. Sawicki said. “You’ve got to go back to the drawing board. Now everybody’s considering everything.”
The Suffolk County Legislature voted 12-3 last month to let voters decide whether or not to combine the offices of the county treasurer and comptroller.
Mr. Sawicki, a Southold resident, would head the new department starting in January 2014 if voters approve the merger and would be eligible to run again for the position in the fall.
East End county legislators, who both supported the proposal to put the referendum on the ballot, agreed with Mr. Sawicki.
“If you look at the way county government is set up right now and the serious amount of debt that the county’s in, the only way to change things is to look at everything,” said Legislator Al Krupski. “It’s good to have that kind of public debate. It’s good to look at restructuring these things.”
Mr. Krupski said he has been assured the move would save the estimated $833,000 in benefits and salaries.
“I’ve met with Angie [Carpenter] twice about this. I have a lot of respect for her and how her office runs … but you have to look at how the county runs,” he said. “This is not about Joe, this is not about Angie.”
Legislator Jay Schneiderman said his vote to approve the resolution wasn’t an endorsement of the plan, but a way to let Suffolk County residents make the decision.
“How was I going to explain to the people I represent that I didn’t give them a chance to decide?” he asked. “This was not merging the two departments; this was letting the voters decide.”