After months of complaints that the police department is short-staffed, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said Tuesday that he's begun the process of hiring a police class, but made adding any new officers contingent on legislators agreeing to sell the county's nursing home.

Levy said the sale would allow the county to afford a new class of 70 to 80 officers and that the decision was not influenced by a recent spate of high-profile crimes.

"It was indeed a coincidence," Levy said.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, criticized linking the hirings to the selling of the nursing home.

Levy said his proposal was also motivated by the legislature's approval last week of his early retirement plan for some civilian county employees and by the county's civilian labor union chief saying she'll forgo a legal challenge to a sale of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility.

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Last year, legislators raised 2010 police district property taxes 3 percent to add 200 new officers, though Levy has maintained the money is not enough. A class of 70 officers began last month. Each class takes between eight and nine months to complete.

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Should the proposed $36-million nursing home sale lead to a cash influx for the county's general fund, Levy said he will seek to transfer a larger portion of 2011 county sales tax funds to the police district, which covers Suffolk's five western towns, to pay for the new officers. By law, Suffolk can transfer up to about $100 million from the general fund to the police district.

Lawmakers transferred $54 million from the general fund to the police district in the 2010 budget and $66 million in 2009, according to Eric Naughton, Levy's budget director.

Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) said hiring police should be independent of the retirement plan and the nursing home sale.

"For him to say he's hiring cops because the legislature gave in and we agreed to his early retirement plan is an outright lie," Cooper said. "Shame on Levy for trying to pull the wool over people's eyes."

Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) said the nursing home sale should be considered on its own merits.

"To tie public safety to us selling the nursing home is really wrong," he said. "You're pitting seniors against public safety. It's cruel."

"Nevertheless, these folks will be happy to see there will be another police class," Levy said.

Legislators are due to vote Aug. 17 on whether to sell the nursing home to New York City nursing home operator Kenneth Rozenberg. Cheryl Felice, the president of the union that represents nursing home employees, said last week that the union will not sue the county to block a sale.

Noel DiGerolamo, a vice president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, said the new hires may not even keep pace with officers leaving the force this year. Already in July alone, he said, 39 officers have retired.

"The legislature has already funded for the police. Neither the police nor the nursing home should be held hostage to the other in this political game," he said.

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Suffolk now has 2,488 police officers. Nassau has 2,555 police officers and has not started a new class this year.

With William Murphy