When Nassau County resolved to consolidate its staff on Jan. 1, laborers from the Parks Department and mechanics for the police department were not so pleased with this New Year’s resolution. Being absorbed into the Department of Public Works (DPW) ruffled some feathers in the name of government efficiency.
Parks advocates and union officials criticized the plan to merge the county workforce, which Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi has been pushing for years.
Along with the transfer of nearly 100 parks employees to the DPW, the consolidation also included trimming park operations. As a result, maintenance crews will have more work that may take even longer than usual to complete because DPW—the agency that maintains county roads, building and sewer treatment facilities, to name a few—has other priorities, critics say. With the combining of Nassau police and DPW mechanics, there are also worries that DPW staffers who could soon be working with police cars haven’t yet undergone background checks. And then there are concerns that having DPW tasked with park upkeep could be a violation of the county charter.
County officials insist that all of these concerns are moot, but union officials aren’t buying it.
“We were able to stop it in the legislature three times for three years, but we were not able to stop it this time because of the fiscal crisis,” says Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 830, the union that represents Nassau County’s employees. “This consolidation was more of a theory than it was a practical solution and I think someone convinced Suozzi a long time ago that this consolidation idea would be worthwhile, and I don’t think in the end it is or will be.”
Laricchiuta notes that the background checks on DPW mechanics are underway and that none of them have worked on a police car since the transfer went through. Union officials had warned that using mechanics that have not undergone background checks to work on police cars could be a security risk. DPW Commissioner Raymond Ribeiro says that a placement plan for the mechanics is still being devised and will be based on workload.
With regard to the legality of the transfer of workers from the Parks Department to DPW, the Legislature passed a resolution on Dec. 1 that authorizes DPW to maintain county parks and museums, which resolves the county charter conflict, according to the county attorney’s office. Still, Bruce Piel, chairman of Park Advocacy & Recreation Council of Nassau (PARCnassau), a coalition of 150 park advocacy groups with a membership of 250,000 county residents, is worried about the effect that shuffling park staff will have.
“If you have to fix a bathroom in Cantiague Park and you have to fix a bathroom in Teddy Roosevelt courthouse, which is going to get fixed first?” Piel asks rhetorically. He adds that when park hours are cut—some parks will be closed for winter, others for two days a week and many will have shorter hours of operation—taxpayers will be deprived of an essential service and lawbreakers will run rampant in the parks.
The parks department had 1,200 workers in the 1970s, but by 1992 it was down to 400 and as of 2006 there were 260. There are now 130 left, with the majority of those working in the county museums.
Ribeiro counters saying that the restructured work crews will be better equipped to maintain the parks when they join DPW. Parks officials say that staffing can be arranged for organized sports events that run beyond sundown.