ALBANY -- Just weeks after an arbitrator awarded 40 percent raises to Nassau district attorney investigators, county executives on Long Island are backing a proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to cap police and firefighters' pay hikes at 2 percent.
Counties with particularly large police forces, such as Suffolk and Nassau, could benefit because their finances are so strained that they probably would qualify for the new limit, officials said. Cash-poor Suffolk believes a cap on arbitration awards also might help restrain pay increases that nonuniformed workers gain through bargaining.
"We believe a binding arbitration award cap is favorable for Suffolk County; it does put downward pressure on negotiated contracts, which we have outstanding," said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat.
The county has around 10 outstanding contracts with workers, including detectives, and probation and park officers, which would fall under the proposed limit, she said.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, said in an email that he supports "Cuomo's initiative to control costs that are otherwise pushed onto county taxpayers."
Police officers affected
In 2010, the base salaries of 1,103 Nassau County police officers topped $100,000. On Long Island, the cap would apply mainly to police officers because most firefighters are volunteer.
The cap on arbitration awards, proposed by Cuomo as part of the state budget, would apply only to municipalities whose property taxes are among the 25 percent highest in the state. The limit also would apply to those whose reserves are below 5 percent of the general fund. Both criteria are five-year averages.
While Suffolk was on the governor's list of localities that would qualify for the cap, Nassau was not. Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said the list was preliminary; the most recent data were for 2010.
Nassau Comptroller George Maragos said that based on the reserves criteria, Nassau would qualify for the cap if more recent data were used, including 2012 estimates.
Maragos, a Republican, noted the cap would have prevented an arbitrator from granting 40 percent pay increases earlier this month to investigators in the Nassau district attorney's office.
Union officials in opposition
Not surprisingly, police union officials oppose the cap.
Richard Wells, president of the Police Conference of New York, faulted Cuomo's cap partly because it includes health insurance -- the cost of which has climbed steadily. "This, in effect, negates any pay increase for any police officer in the state for the foreseeable future," he said.
While fiscal monitors have criticized as overly generous a string of arbitrators' awards in Nassau and Suffolk counties, Wells said that elected officials have at times bought into them by allowing the arbitrator to recommend a contract longer than two years.
"If it goes beyond two years, an elected official can use that for political cover," he said.
Asked about the possibility that rising health care costs would eat up any potential salary hikes, Lawrence Schwartz, the governor's secretary, said: "If unions have concerns, they should come in and meet with us -- and let them come up with a solution that works for the municipalities and their members."
Schwartz added that Cuomo's proposal aims to prevent police and firefighter unions from dragging out negotiations because they probably would win more through arbitration than through bargaining.
Since 1997, Nassau has had a series of multiyear contracts reached through arbitration, according to James Carver, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association. Like Wells, he says he prefers negotiating contracts to accepting binding arbitration.
In 2008, Nassau's police union agreed to extend their contract -- and accept cost savings because of the county's poor fiscal condition -- to run from 2012 to 2015, Carver said. The Nassau police officers' salaries are justified by the dangerous nature of the job and the county's high cost of living, he said. "We wear bulletproof vests for a reason," Carver said.
Pattern bargaining faulted
In Nassau, the arbitrator ruled that district attorney investigators were doing the same kind of work as police officers, and thus should be paid comparable salaries, an argument that has merit, Maragos said.
But this kind of pattern bargaining, which lets workers capture successively higher pay packages to keep pace with nearby peers, "does have the potential to bankrupt any county," he said.
Cuomo wants the legislature to approve the new cap in an extension of the binding arbitration provision for police and firefighters, which is part of the Taylor Law. The binding arbitration provision in the law, which bars public workers from striking, expires in June.
Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver, was noncommittal, saying the proposal was under review.
A spokesman for Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) had no immediate comment. Lawmakers expect to enact a state budget by April 1.