Most county pay goes to law enforcement

Suffolk County Police Officers salute during their graduation Suffolk County Police Officers salute during their graduation ceremony from the Police Academy in Brentwood. (June 10, 2011) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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The total compensation of police and sheriff's department employees in Nassau and Suffolk last year reached almost two-thirds of each county's payroll, propelled by generous raises, overtime and retirement packages.

A Newsday analysis of county records shows years of raises above the inflation rate pushed base salaries to as much as $219,000 for a Nassau police captain. A Suffolk sheriff's officer earned overtime of $120,166, while a retirement package boosted another Nassau captain's total pay to $876,078.

Sixty-six Nassau police and sheriff's deputies, who along with other union workers were offered an incentive of $1,500 per year of service to retire last year, received more than $500,000 each in total compensation.

Police and sheriff's department employees compose 45 percent of all county workers in Nassau and 38 percent in Suffolk. There were about 12,400 county employees in Nassau last year and 14,000 in Suffolk, according to databases provided by the county comptrollers offices. The employee totals exclude the two county community colleges and the Nassau Health Care Corp., which are not entirely county-funded.

Law enforcement salaries are consuming a large chunk of county budgets -- Nassau is set to spend a total of $2.6 billion this year, and Suffolk $2.7 billion -- at a time when the troubled economy and state budget cuts are forcing the counties to slash spending and there is voter discontent with high taxes.

Suffolk is considering closing at least one county health clinic to fill a $179.5-million budget shortfall. Nassau's finances have been taken over by a state fiscal monitoring board and the county is preparing to lay off hundreds of employees as it struggles to close a deficit of as much as $176 million this year.

"I'm not going to say whether police deserve more money or less," said Tim Hoefer, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative research group that studies fiscal policy. "The question is what will suffer, your tax levy or the other things you value, like your local animal shelter?"

 

Data from county records

Newsday drew compensation data for all employees in the county police and sheriff's departments from public records obtained through the Freedom of Information Law.

Employees are considered full-time if they earn $30,000 or more, since those who make less for the most part are part-time or seasonal workers.

"The question isn't whether an officer is worth it," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who often has battled with police unions over wage and benefit issues. "They are. The question is whether we can afford it. And we can't."

Other officials defend law enforcement pay, saying it reflects the valuable and demanding nature of the work.

"Here in Nassau and Suffolk we pay a lot for good services to maintain a high quality of life for our families," said Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick), a member of the Public Safety Committee. "And the No. 1 aspect of quality of life is public safety."

James Carver, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association, justified his members' salaries, noting that law enforcement composes just 10 percent of the average homeowner's property tax bill.

"The public is getting a good bang for their buck," he said.

According to records, Nassau and Suffolk are spending a much greater share of their payrolls on law enforcement than New York City.

In Nassau, 66 percent of the $928 million payroll last year went for police and sheriffs pay -- including salaries, overtime, retirement payouts that include accrued sick and vacation time and other forms of compensation such as night differential pay.

In Suffolk, the figure was 59 percent of the 2010 payroll of $993 million.

Total payroll for the New York City Police Department will reach $4.3 billion this year, about 20 percent of the city's total payroll.

Long Island police and sheriff's patrol officers are paid some of the highest law-enforcement salaries in the nation -- ranking sixth among all metropolitan areas last year with median wages of $84,090, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Officers in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area in California had the highest median wages, $96,330. In 2010, the median wage among employed residents in the Nassau-Suffolk area was $38,680.

Police and sheriff's deputies dominate the ranks of the highest-paid government employees in Nassau and Suffolk.

 

Top earners in counties

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Det. Robert Doyle got the highest compensation of any Suffolk employee last year, with a total of $399,000 including base earnings of $82,900, $39,800 in overtime and a retirement payout of $251,700, after serving 33 years on the force. Capt. Robert M. Turk was Nassau's highest earner with more than $876,000, including $209,000 in salary and overtime and the preponderance of the rest from his October retirement payout. The Nassau data does not include precise figures for retirement packages.

Even factoring out one-time retirement payouts, which are in addition to pensions and can include tens of thousands of dollars in accrued vacation and sick time, active-duty police and sheriff's deputies still were the highest-paid government employees in both counties.

In Suffolk, the top-paid active-duty employee was Deputy Police Insp. Henry Mulligan, with total earnings of $260,300, including base salary of $210,600 and $6,500 in overtime, along with other contractual payments.

Nassau Police Officer Gary Renick was the county's highest-paid active employee, at $253,000, including $106,700 in salary and $111,500 in overtime.

By comparison, Levy earned a total of $189,158 in 2010, while Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano made $173,944.

The police and sheriff's officers in Nassau who were tops among active-duty earners did not return calls seeking comment. The top active-duty earners among Suffolk police did not return calls; there were no sheriff's officers among the group.

 

Big retirement payouts

Some Nassau police received such large retirement packages that they left the department almost millionaires. In an effort to reduce the size of the county payroll, Nassau offered all union workers a $1,500-per-year-of-service incentive to retire last year, and 125 cops took the offer.

Capt. Robert McGuigan, a deputy police commissioner in Nassau, followed Turk in the rankings with $865,555 in total compensation -- $199,200 in salary and $10,100 in overtime, plus his retirement payout.

Thomas Krumpter, Nassau's acting police commissioner, said the PBA during former County Executive Thomas Suozzi's administration agreed to a deal to cap police retirement payouts at twice an officer's annual base salary. Those caps were removed temporarily in 2010 by Mangano as an incentive to lower payroll by getting people to retire early. The move, however, ballooned retirement payouts, said Krumpter and union officials.

Suffolk's list of employees with the highest total compensation last year, topped by Doyle, also was dominated by law enforcement personnel who were leaving the department. The top 10 highest-compensated Suffolk employees were all police.

 

Pay rates outpace inflation

At least a decade of state arbitration decisions have raised the salaries of police personnel faster than the Consumer Price Index, which measures changes in prices paid for a representative basket of goods and services, for Northeast states.

The arbitration system, set out in state law, requires contract talks to go to binding arbitration should the parties not be able to agree at the negotiating table.

Arbitrators are required to consider the raises and pay of police in similar jurisdictions and they have historically viewed Nassau and Suffolk as the most similar comparison for each other. If Nassau or Suffolk police get a raise, it drives up pay for the other department at the next arbitration.

Jeff Frayler, president of the Suffolk PBA, said it's only fair for arbitrators to keep raises and salaries in line with those of other area cops. He stressed that the union helped to reduce costs by agreeing in 2009 to defer $12 million in wage increases until the officers retire.

In Suffolk, police officer salaries have grown by an average of 4 percent a year since 1987, while the Consumer Price Index for the Northeast rose by an average of 3.5 percent over those years, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and county figures. The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state oversight board that controls the county's finances, has frozen all salary increases for 2011. The issue is now in litigation.

Base police salaries in Nassau will have grown by an average rate of almost 3.1 percent from 2001 through 2015, when the officers' contract expires. (The Consumer Price Index grew by an average of 2.8 percent between 2001 and 2011).

The salary hikes in both counties have contributed to the growing number of $100,000-a-year cops.

In Suffolk, 2,941 law enforcement workers, or about 70 percent of Suffolk County's 4,254 full-time police and sheriff's personnel, were paid more than $100,000 in salary and overtime in 2010.

In Nassau County, 2,520 police and Sheriff's Department employees -- about 55 percent of the total -- received in excess of $100,000 in salary and overtime; 80 percent were police.

 

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Tens of millions for overtime

Nassau police and sheriffs spent just over $67 million on overtime last year; Suffolk's police and sheriff's departments spent $69 million.

Eight employees in the two counties earned more in overtime than they made in salary.

Michael Adams, president of the Nassau County Sheriff's Officer Association, said working in the jail with dangerous prisoners -- even on OT -- is challenging.

"We call it blood money," Adams said. "No one wants to be there. It takes a beating on you."

Mangano attributed the high overtime numbers for police to minimum manning staffing rules enacted in the 1980s that require a set number of police cars on the streets at any given time. Mangano wants to change these rules, contained in the PBA contract expiring in 2015, to increase the department's flexibility in assigning officers.

In Suffolk County, sheriff's deputies topped the list of overtime earners. Sheriff's officer Glen Rahner made the most in OT: $120,166 in addition to his $90,862 salary. Deputy Sheriff Mario Belcastro got $100,282 in overtime. A message left with the sheriff's office for Rahner and Belcastro was not returned.

Sheriff's chief of staff Michael Sharkey said overtime costs were driven higher because 99 positions were vacant. The vacancies were caused partly by Levy's refusal to authorize as much hiring as the department wanted and the fact the county had no police academy graduating classes scheduled last year, Sharkey said.

In response, Levy spokesman Dan Aug said, "There are more employees in the sheriff's department today than at any time in recent memory."

 

Are salaries sustainable?

Officials and fiscal experts are divided about whether the counties' levels of law enforcement spending are sustainable.

Mark Lavigne, deputy director of the New York State Association of Counties, said with the State Legislature's anticipated approval of a 2 percent cap on property tax increases, coupled with no relief from state mandates on counties, "salaries across the board on all level of government could very well be unsustainable."

Lee Adler, a professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations and a former union activist, said, "The problem is not that the police or anyone else is being paid too much. There are certain forces in our society that are not being taxed appropriately."

He cited Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's decision to let the state's "millionaire's tax" on high-income residents expire.

Adler also argued that volunteer fire departments in many areas of Long Island save tax dollars, and offset the cost of having well-paid police.

But Mangano said something has to change.

"This situation cannot be maintained," he said. "These are tough economic times and we are seeking additional concessions."

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