Suffolk cop deal no break from arbitration

A Suffolk police car sits in front of A Suffolk police car sits in front of the West Babylon home. (Dec. 12, 2011) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

The proposed police contract slated to be decided by the Suffolk County Legislature today is like a big sandwich cookie.

The top layer is made of savings -- tens of millions of dollars Suffolk won't have to spend in police back pay.

At the bottom are even greater savings, because new police hires will take longer to earn top pay rates that will be reduced from their current levels.

The rub is the filling, which will cost Suffolk significantly more than current police compensation costs.

There is certain to be considerable discussion among lawmakers Tuesday, and the discussion line may go something like: "We don't like this, but it could be worse if we went to binding arbitration."

That's true.

But the contract nonetheless deserves to be considered for what it is, rather than for what it is not. And make no mistake, this is a rich contract for a county in the midst of a financial crisis.

Could it have been better? Perhaps. But that would have meant a clean break from the kinds of contracts habitually served up by arbitrators.

This proposed agreement -- reached and twice revised by police and the administration without the political cover of arbitration -- does not represent such a break.

For officers now on the force, the guts of the contract pretty much amount to an arbitrated agreement that was reached without arbitration.

They will not pay into health insurance. And while they lose back pay, members of the Police Benevolent Association will get raises not once, but twice a year at the beginning of the agreement.

The proposal includes a no-layoff clause that will keep future county officials from making unilateral cuts in the force.

Such clauses raise the question of whether Suffolk was strident enough in making its case at the negotiation table -- and whether the administration was satisfied too soon with too little savings because they wanted to fix next year's budget.

But, while the proposed contract does not break entirely free of the past, it does break away. It is significant that new officers will pay out of pocket for health insurance coverage. It's also significant that new officers will take longer to earn top pay.

As administration officials pointed out, it is likely that an arbitrator would have ordered no such concessions. On Friday, they warned lawmakers that voting the proposal down amounted to making a bad bet that arbitration would be less expensive.

OK, so Albany has no intention of changing the state's binding arbitration law, which comes into play when law enforcement officers and municipalities can't make a deal.

But that alone shouldn't guarantee the contract's approval. Before voting for the deal, Suffolk lawmakers ought to be able to articulate its cost -- and make the best case publicly why the contract is good public policy.

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