Despite a sour economy and an overall decline in crime, Suffolk County has begun the process of hiring up to 200 new police officers who could cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion in salary and fringe benefits over the next 20 years, records show.

In authorizing the new hires, Suffolk legislators said 200 more officers are needed to replace departing retirees and to fight an uptick in violent crime. County Executive Steve Levy, however, says Suffolk simply can't afford it.

Levy and some outside experts argue that the hiring of 200 new cops, about 8 percent of the current force, should have been analyzed for its long-term costs. But proponents of the hiring say the exercise ignores the savings from annual retirements of higher-paid officers.

Dozens of new candidates for the first 70 jobs that have been funded are beginning their initial training at the police academy in Brentwood, hoping to be working by fall.

The average homeowner will pay about $30 more in property taxes this year to pay for the 200 new hires, lawmakers said. But this tax bill could soon double, Levy warned, because a rookie cop's $57,800 base salary escalates within about five years to $100,000 in annual take-home pay.

"There is crime out there and I believe it is the time to beef up the police department," said Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Patchoque), chairman of the legislature's Public Safety Committee. "Money is important, the economy is in trouble, but we cannot give up on public safety."

 

Levy: New hires not justified

But with crime down overall by about 8 percent last year, Levy said adding 200 new officers can't be justified.

"If you look at the tax implications of hiring 200 additional officers, it will cost up to $1 billion - that's billion with a 'b'," said Levy, a Democrat. He decried what he called the "insanity of thinking you always have to hire more officers, raise taxes and spend more money."

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The legislature has provided $10 million in funding for 200 new cops this year. But depending upon how many officers ultimately are hired, the long-term bill, including salary hikes, fringe benefits and the value of unused days off, could range from about $350 million for just 70 cops to as much as $1.036 billion for all 200.

The number of new police who actually will be hired is in flux because Levy, who is facing a shortfall in sales tax revenue next year of up to $66 million, remains undecided about whether to hire the other 130 authorized recruits.

As in Nassau, the number of Suffolk police officers has been dwindling - from 3,178 to 2,620 in 2008, according to state figures. This year, the force is at 2,515 members, Suffolk says. In November, the Suffolk Legislature overrode a veto by Levy and authorized the hiring of 100 new recruits by this April and another class of 100 in October.

Proponents of the new hiring pointed to the spread of heroin use and statistics showing increases in robberies and aggravated assaults; for instance, robberies jumped from 803 in 2008 to 864 last year, while assaults rose from 1,041 to 1,098.

They say a long-term analysis of police costs is misleading because the cost of hiring new officers is essentially offset by the savings from higher-paid officers who retire each year.

"As you have people walking out the door, you have to replace them," said Noel DiGerolamo, second vice president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association. He said about 200 police have retired since the last new class of recruits in 2007. Eddington called the $1 billion cost estimate "kind of inflammatory and frightening.

"I think we have to talk about what it costs today, and we're talking $30 a year to the taxpayer," said Eddington. "If you went to the family that last night had a break-in to their house, they would willingly pay that $30 for increased police protection."

Legislative budget analysts say 122 department members retired last year, removing $20 million in salaries and benefits from the books. But Levy's office says the salary savings are largely negated by payout checks most cops get upon leaving the force. Adding up unused days off and sick time, retirees in 2009 received an average one-time check worth $150,760, records show.

"The Suffolk police are very well-compensated," said Lise Bang-Jensen, senior policy analyst for the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative think tank in Albany. "They [county officials] should obviously be looking beyond two years because hiring 200 more officers will have a long-term impact."

 

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Transferring jobs to civilians

"It's a tremendous amount of money that just is not sustainable," said Levy, who blames the police union for creating political pressure to add more officers. Levy said he actually has moved some 80 police officers from desk jobs onto the street by replacing them with lower-paid civilians.

Nassau County recently began saving several million dollars a year by reducing its number of police officers by 200; the reduction was based in part on a 2008 union contract that allowed more civilians to fill in for higher-paid uniformed officers.

But despite Levy's criticism, union officials and many lawmakers, Republican and Democratic, say maintaining adequate police services in Suffolk is important to residents and hiring more cops is worth it.

"These are 200 officers who will put on bulletproof vests, carry guns and put their lives on the line every day," said the PBA's DiGerolamo. "How do you put a price on that?"