Roughly half of Riverhead's rank-and-file police officers are interested in merging their department with Suffolk County's force, the town's police union president said this week, as the proposal emerges as an issue in a heated race for town supervisor.
Riverhead PBA president Dixon Palmer said in an interview that union members want to explore the pros and cons of merging the town's force of 84 officers into the county's force of 2,340. He said he has had four or five discussions about the idea over the past 18 months with Riverhead Town Board members and Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo.
Palmer said the benefits for Riverhead officers could include better post-retirement family medical benefits, higher pay, and opportunities to serve in specialized units such as aviation, arson and narcotics. But he said the idea has failed to gain traction with a majority of officials on the five-member town board, who like the local service the town's force provides. A merger would require approval by taxpayers in a referendum.
"Personally, I think it could be a good idea," Palmer said of consolidation. "I'm not 100 percent sold on it, though."
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who is fighting to keep his seat in a Sept. 10 Republican primary, said he believes his resistance to a merger is the main reason Suffolk PBA officials have crossed jurisdictional lines to launch an ad campaign against him and endorse Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, his opponent in the primary.
"The Suffolk PBA, for them, this is manifest destiny that they take over Riverhead," Walter said. But Giglio said Thursday that she would also not vote in favor of scheduling a referendum on a merger. "It's not on the table," she said.
Giglio added that Riverhead PBA members could force a referendum by collecting signatures from residents. Town attorneys could not be reached to confirm that Thursday.
"If the Riverhead PBA wants to go to Suffolk County, it would have to work for them and the taxpayers," Giglio said.
A Suffolk police spokeswoman said the department does not generally comment on merger proposals. A spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said "this is the first we are hearing of this."
DiGerolamo, the Suffolk PBA president, said it's not unusual for the union to insert itself in a political race outside the county police's jurisdiction. He added that a merger won't happen unless town taxpayers call for one.
"As far as the union is concerned, there is no desire to merge outside of the public wanting it, and it would have to come with significant savings, otherwise it wouldn't make sense to give up the autonomy of an independent department" in Riverhead, he said.
DiGerolamo acknowledged the Suffolk PBA has been running radio and online ads attacking Walter, but said it was because he invited the Guardian Angels anti-crime organization to begin patrolling Riverhead in June and for "mismanagement" of the town department.
"Equipment is dated, computers are outdated, the cars are being run into the ground," DiGerolamo said.
Walter said the department "has never been cut and is fully funded and everything they need, they get." He said police costs account for about half of Riverhead's $46 million annual budget, but he believes county taxes would make consolidation a wash for town residents.
Councilman James Wooten, a former town police officer and PBA president, said members of the force have floated consolidation since the 1970s. But he said he wouldn't favor exploring a merger unless there were significant tax benefits.
"I always thought there was a comfort level of having police officers who grew up in the community, went to school in the community, played sports in the community," Wooten said.
Palmer, the Riverhead PBA president, said a merger would give officers full medical coverage for their families after they retire. Retirement benefits for Riverhead officers cover half of medical costs for relatives, he said.
Palmer added it's possible town officers would make higher salaries in the county force, but it depends on whether they would work under an old county contract or a 2012 agreement that revised the salary schedule for new recruits. He also said he's concerned that not all town officers would keep their jobs in a merger.
Under the 2012 contract, new Suffolk recruits earn $42,000 and, if they remain rank-and-file police officers, max out their salaries after 12 years at $111,506, according to a 2012 report by the Suffolk County Legislature Budget Review Office.
Riverhead officers earn between $41,088 and $115,796, according to a January town board resolution setting salaries for the year.
Southold PBA president Richard Buonaiuto said in an interview Wednesday that members of his union may also be interested in merging the North Fork department of 50 officers with the county's force, but that union officials have never formally gauged support of the idea.
"There has been some talks about it, and that's it," Buonaiuto said. "There hasn't been any formal discussion."