Hefty pay raises approved by the Nassau County Legislature’s GOP Majority Monday have sparked continued outrage among county Democrats that has resulted in their legality being referred to the county attorney’s office for review by the county’s top-elected official, a Republican. Opposing lawmakers have also filed a measure to repeal the increases.
The resolution for the controversial pay hikes, which include a 47-percent increase for Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), was put on the Legislature’s calendar at the last minute, without public notice, charges Democratic Minority Leader Diane Yatauro (D-Glen Cove), and was passed along party lines, with all 11 Republicans voting in favor of the increases and all eight Democrats voting against them.
Schmitt increased his stipend from $28,000 to $60,000, bringing his total salary to $99,500—up from $67,500. In addition, Deputy Presiding Officer John Ciotti (R-North Valley Stream) received a $22,000 stipend increase, boosting his total salary from $62,500 to $84,500 due to the approval. Yatauro was also given a stipend bump, of $27,000, increasing her total salary to $90,500, up from $63,500. Base pay for all Nassau legislators is $39,500.
Yatauro, the Legislature’s former presiding officer, blasts the taxpayer-financed hikes as “shameless” and sent a hand-delivered a letter to Nassau’s new Republican Comptroller George Maragos Tuesday rejecting her portion, telling the Press that if forced by law to accept it, she’d donate the money to charity.
“I’d rather the county keep it, so that we don’t have to cut different programs, that’s what were looking at at this point,” Yatauro says, referring to grim fiscal times anticipated for Nassau in the not-so-distant future. “I’m going to set up a separate account and donate to the charities that look like they’re going to get cut by the county.”
The Minority Leader stresses the tough economic situation currently facing taxpayers—evident in Nassau’s 7.2 percent unemployment rate—as reason enough to be outraged about the hikes. Adding insult to taxpayers’ collective injury, she adds, is that the pay increases are retroactive—going back to Jan. 1 even though Schmitt wasn’t sworn in as presiding officer until Jan. 4.
“We’re blindsided by what has happened here,” says Yatauro. “It just smacks of a money grab, and that is so offensive to, not only county employees, who lagged their pay, and our unions, who gave back contracts, and what we’re going to face with the ‘11 budget—everyone knows that this is even worse than last year—but, to all the constituents we’re supposed to serve, who think government stinks anyway, this is exactly why they think that.”
Schmitt defends his pay increase, telling the Press the Democrats are “distorting” the situation and are hypocritical, since they’ve tried attempted and doled out raises to a slew of Democratic elected officials over the years, including former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. He adds that the move shouldn’t have been a surprise to Yatauro since he informed her the week before of his party’s exact intentions.
“The Democrats are quivering with hypocritical moral indignation over this,” Schmitt fires back. “I told her what we were going to do, so she knew all about it, now she feigns complete innocence. This is no more, no less than [former Democratic Presiding Officer] Judy Jacobs tried to do three times in 2007.”
“I didn’t see any moral indignation on their part then,” he continues. “I saw no moral indignation on their part when they voted to give a 60-percent raise to Suozzi and a 60-percent raise to [former Nassau Comptroller Howard] Weitzman, and a 60-percent raise to DA [Kathleen] Rice, all Democrats.”
Schmitt adds that the hike brings he and the other officials’ salaries more on par with those of other counties. The presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature gets $111,000 a year, he says.
“The bottom line is this is a full-time job,” Schmitt justifies. “The presiding officer’s compensation up till this point was behind that of council people in the towns.”
Yatauro acknowledges Schmitt told she and her staff last Friday he was going to “see if he could do the raises for Monday,” but argues that they weren’t sure he was actually going to do it, and that “he knew that I wasn’t voting for it.” Yatauro led the body’s Democratic caucus Tuesday in publicly calling for newly elected Republican Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano to find a way to stop the raises—doled out just three weeks into Schmitt’s term as the Legislature’s new leader. She urged taxpayers to call Mangano and tell him to “Stop the raises!”
Mangano, who campaigned against Suozzi on a platform heavily stressing fiscal responsibility and accountability—and warned during his inaugural speech on New Year’s Day that Nassau could be facing a deficit of $400 million in 2011—issued the following written statement Tuesday regarding the pay hikes:
“At the request of Minority Leader Yatauro, I have referred the question of the legality of the raises to the County Attorney’s office for review. The Nassau County Legislature is a separate branch of government and as such abides by its own rules of procedure.”
“My administration will continue to lead by example through reducing the cost of government, and it is our hope that our colleagues follow suit,” it continues.
Yatauro, who announced Wednesday she and the Democratic caucus had filed a resolution to repeal Schmitt’s raises, describes Mangano’s statement as encouraging.
“I think what that says, to my colleague, is, ‘I’m not giving raises,’” she explains.
Schmitt, however, says Mangano’s referral is of no concern, since as per Nassau’s charter, the county executive couldn’t stop the raises even if he wanted to.
“It is improper for the county executive—any county executive, the executive branch—to have a veto role or signing, approving or vetoing, legislative compensation, which is why the charter is written in the way it’s written,” he says. “So this is strictly an internal thing, internal to the Legislature, it effects only the legislative budget.”
Schmitt stresses that the charter provides for additional stipends for the presiding officer, the deputy presiding officer, and the minority leader, and that the money comes out of the existing legislative budget, “so there is no increase in the county budget, there is no fiscal impact in the county.”
“To be quite honest with you, if it would have required expanding or enlarging, increasing the legislative budget in order to do this, I would not have done it,” he explains.
“This is a leadership issue,” Yatauro says. “I can tell you that, as a presiding officer, working with the county executive, I would never jeapordize his budget—never.”