Cop pact gives Suffolk nonunion workers a break

A police cruiser outside of the Suffolk County

A police cruiser outside of the Suffolk County Third Precinct in Bay Shore. (March 2, 2010) (Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin)

Several hundred nonunion employees in Suffolk who were to start paying part of their health care premiums this fall will soon be off the hook in the wake of a deal to have only new union hires contribute.

Officials in County Executive Steve Bellone's administration said Monday that they will move to revise the May law that ordered nearly 500 current exempt employees to pay up to 25 percent of their insurance costs beginning in November. The revision, if approved by the legislature, will instead require only new exempt employees to pay a flat 15 percent of their premiums -- matching the terms of an agreement applying to all union workers who are hired after Dec. 31.

Bellone had designed the original plan for current nonunion workers hoping it would "lead by example" and encourage all employees to begin paying into their health care.

Contributions by nonunion employees would have saved the county $1.4 million annually. Participation by all current employees would have generated $32 million in savings.

Suffolk faces an estimated $300 million budget gap next year. But Bellone aides said that conceding on current workers, and requiring health care contributions only of new employees, was necessary to strike a 10-year deal with the police officers' union, and get $17 million in unrelated annual savings from the county's Employee Medical Health Plan.

"While we said that we'd be able to show leadership up front, the goal was always to have exempts treated the same as all other employees," Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said. "This is a compromise providing tens of millions of dollars in immediate relief."

Suffolk's unions have agreed to pay for the $17 million in county budget relief beginning in 2013, unrelated to premiums, by adjusting their self-insured health plan -- likely through prescriptions and co-pays.

Dan Farrell, president of Suffolk's largest union, the Association of Municipal Employees, said the deal was something "we all could live with -- the county, unions and taxpayers.

"It was inevitable for the new hires," Farrell said. "At least they'll have the benefit of knowing what they'll pay up front, rather than a current member having their security pulled out from under them."

Lawmakers, who are expected to vote on the health care changes within the next month, are readjusting expectations after long pushing for current employee contributions.

"That's the nature of negotiations," said Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "You put out the hard facts first, then back off as the process continues."

But Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said some employees are unhappy the administration urged them to take early retirement to protect their benefits on the assumption that up to 25 percent contributions were imminent.

"There was a lot of pressure for these people to retire with the threat they'd pay for health insurance," he said. "That pressure's now gone, and I feel they weren't dealt with openly."

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