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Pay Issue Stirs Debate

By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO — February 5, 2002 – Sullivan County District Attorney Steve Lungen is mad.
In this year’s budget, his annual salary has fallen from $130,000 to $127,000 – and he’s pointing the finger squarely in the direction of the Sullivan County Legislature.
Each year, Sullivan County goes through a long and arduous budget process. The main budget officers – Financial Management Committee Chair Kathleen LaBuda, County Manager Dan Briggs, and Financial Management Administration Commissioner Richard LaCondré – spend hundreds of hours working on the budget and meeting individually with each department head to assess divisional needs.
Part of that process includes setting salaries for elected officials. After each election, those salaries are set for the term of office.
In 1997, the salary for District Attorney was pegged at $105,000. Lungen appealed to the Legislature for a cost-of-living increase that would go into effect each year of his term. That rate was determined to be $1,500.
In 1999, New York State passed a law stating that all DAs would make salaries comparable to each other, and the salaries were bumped up. Lungen got a raise of $22,000. His salary went from $105,000 to $127,000. Lungen also continued to get his yearly increase of $1,500 from the county.
In 2001, Lungen's salary reached $130,000. In addition, he is provided with a vehicle and reimbursed for car expenses.
During the budget process for 2002, Sheriff Dan Hogue, Treasurer Olga Parlow, and DA Lungen were asked for their budget requests. Both Hogue and Parlow requested raises for themselves and their office staffs. Lungen just requested raises for his staff and expected to get his yearly cost-of-living increase.
On January 11, he received a memo saying he would not receive a pay increase – rather, he would be facing a pay cut to the 1999 level of $127,000. Lungen was taken by surprise and voiced his anger over the move.
"No one called me to discuss this," Lungen stated. "I have been here for 20 years. Historically, I have not asked for anything. I have never had any difficulty with them [the Legislature].”
But now he has, and he feels he knows who is to blame.
"The cut was done by Kathy [LaBuda]. It was a cowardly thing to do,” he said. “It was a vindictive political process. It is disheartening."
Lungen stated that he heard rumors of the pay cut on December 6. Yet he spoke to LaCondré, and LaCondré claimed to have no knowledge on the subject.
In an interview yesterday, LaCondré stated that no written request was made by Lungen for a pay increase.
"It is the Legislature's prerogative to make changes to the budget. There was no written request, so he received what was required by statute," said LaCondré.
Then on December 13, at the Legislature’s Financial Management Committee meeting, a resolution was presented by Rodney Gaebel increasing the salaries of Parlow and Hogue. The resolution also set Lungen's salary at $127,000, though it did not state that it was an increase or decrease. Later that month, the resolution was passed by the full Legislature. Lungen officially found out about it via memo on January 11.
"I was the only employee out of 1,200 to get a pay cut," Lungen remarked. “It is vindictive. She [LaBuda] is holding a grudge from 12 or 14 years ago. Don't live in the past, live in the present. Now I have to look toward the future."
Lungen claimed part of this may stem from a grudge between him and current Sullivan County Court Judge Frank LaBuda. LaBuda was Lungen's Assistant DA in the 1980s. In 1989, LaBuda challenged Lungen for the seat in a difficult election. It was the last time Lungen ran for the office opposed.
Kathy LaBuda (Frank's wife and the District 2 legislator), however, said there is no grudge.
"This was not personal. The decision was made based on the salary, not the person. The subject was brought up many times, and we waited until Steve's term was up before we did anything. Actually, the salary was higher than it should have been."
"Steve told us that he was not going to run again," Legislady Leni Binder explained. "We thought the state law superseded the county law. We did not expect he would get both [the state and county raises]. This was not political."
"I asked him to set the salary," Briggs said of a conversation he had with Lungen. "He told me he would take care of it. I did not hear from Steve. No one was out to get him, and this was not a slight against him. It was set for the term of office."
The issue was being discussed privately by legislators after the memo came out. However, the story was leaked to a local paper, so legislators have been forced to deal with this usually private issue very publicly.
"It is the job of each legislator to know as much as they possibly can," Legislator Bob Kunis remarked. "That is the nature of the beast. When we saw the resolution, no one thought to ask about it. It was assumed to be an increase, not a decrease. It's an unfortunate mess."
"The salary was set the same as the judges," said Legislature Chair Rusty Pomeroy. "The issue was discussed, and there seemed to be no problem with it. It was discussed during the process.
“I feel bad that it created bad feelings. But I never heard from him [Lungen]."
"There were many conversations," Legislator Chris Cunningham added. "It was common knowledge. I was shocked others didn't know. It was not vindictive."
Fellow Ulster County DA Don Williams said pay, though, is second to commitment.
"I have no familiarity with the subject [of Lungen’s pay]," he commented. "But I know Steve. He is hard-nosed and forthright. DAs do not do this job for the salaries. We do it because we believe in it. Salary is not a reason to do the job."
The matter will be further discussed in steering and caucus meetings on Tuesday. One legislator, citing mistakes of the past, wants to see things done differently. For Lungen to get his salary back to its previous level, a local law needs to be passed, so Leni Binder wants a public vote to do so.
"If we do it, it has to be by public referendum," Binder said. "I want to hear that this is what the people want. There was a lot of outcry when we tried to change our salaries. I don't want to repeat history. This time, it should be a public vote."
Lungen, however, has become very disenchanted by the whole process.
"This is causing me to re-evaluate my position. I like my job. I like what I do. There is no reason I should be dealt with like this. I am starting to look at the end,” he said.
"For 20 years, my office has been non-political," Lungen continued. "I do not want to have to be involved in the political process and be concerned about people getting even. I have been here too long to have to put up with that."
Some officials said they are suspicious that Lungen himself leaked this matter to the press, but Lungen denied that, saying he asked repeatedly for it not to be made public.
Regardless, several officials are asking Lungen not to go.
"I hope he doesn't step down over this," Briggs remarked.
"I would hate to see him do it," Pomeroy commented. "He should not resign over it."

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