Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Union officials and county lawmakers called on Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to get personally involved in negotiations with deputy sheriffs and probation officers, who have been without contracts for six years.
More than 70 members from both unions crowded a lunchtime news conference at the Riverhead legislative auditorium with Legis. Kate Browning (WFP-Shirley), Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), head of the GOP caucus, and Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) calling for Bellone to take a direct role in reaching a fair wage deal.
Officials made the call after playing a tape of Bellone speaking recently at a rally supporting striking Communications Workers of America, who later won a new contract with Verizon after a six-week strike.
”It’s hypocritical to stand with a private sector union and not settle a contract with county union,” said Browning. McCaffrey, a Teamster Local 707 leader, said, “To go without a contract for six years is inconceivable,” telling union members, “We will not rest until you get a contract you deserve.”
John Becker, president of the 250-member deputy sheriffs union, agreed in an interview later that Bellone needs to step in. “He has to focus on resolving the contract, He needs to become involved personally,” Becker said. “Ultimately, he is the one who has to sign off on contract.”
Bellone — who has touted negotiation over binding arbitration — in April declared an impasse in an unsuccessful bid to start binding arbitration. The deputies’ union balked, saying the arbitration would take 18 months and be limited to a three- year award, leaving them without a contract for four years.
Bellone declined to be interviewed, but Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the comparisons with striking telephone workers is “remarkably out of touch” because Verizon employees were fighting cuts in medical benefits and prolonged work assignments away from their families.
“They were fighting for their lives,” said Schneider, while deputies “are fighting for even higher pay than they would be entitled to in arbitration.” He said an average deputy’s annual compensation totals $173,000 — $83,230 in salary, $30,000 in overtime and $60,667 in benefits. He declined to comment on whether Bellone will take part in talks.
Becker said that number is grossly exaggerated, saying the average deputy earns a salary of $75,246.
Noel DiGerolamo, Suffolk PBA president who represents the probation officers union, said a settlement “should have come months ago” and the lack of one is ”demoralizing” to the 240 members. “It’s shameful the way they are being treated,” he said. “If the county executive has time to support Verizon strikers, he should spend an equal amount of time trying to settle with his own workers.”
The county is set to appear in the state Appellate Division in Brooklyn Thursday to try to overturn a lower court ruling that upheld the deputy sheriffs’ agreement with former County Executive Steve Levy, which gave them the right to patrol the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway through 2017. Bellone returned the duty back to the county police in 2012.
The county already has conceded they must pay deputies $3.2 million in salary that they deferred as part of the Levy agreement. Union officials say the county has promised to make payment on July 14.
The deputies union has separate actions pending before the Public Employment Relations Board, claiming it has the exclusive right to patrol the highways, and in federal court, claiming the county has refused to negotiate a contract in retaliation for not supporting Bellone’s election.