Suffolk, cops union reach health care deal

A Suffolk highway patrol officer talks to a

A Suffolk highway patrol officer talks to a driver during a traffic stop. (Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas, 2011)

Suffolk County has reached an unprecedented 10-year agreement with the police officers union that will require new officers to contribute to their health plans and return patrols of the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway to the department.

The county's nine other employee unions said Thursday they've agreed to have their new members pay toward their health care, as well. The cumulative savings would be about $17 million a year.

The deal with Suffolk's police union would require only new officers to pay up to 15 percent of their health insurance premium, county and union officials said Thursday.

Pay raises also would be on hold until mid-2013, saving the county more than $30 million. In return, Suffolk police would again patrol the LIE and Sunrise Highway, which have been under the jurisdiction of county deputy sheriffs since September 2008.

"It is a historical agreement," said Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association president Noel DiGerolamo, who announced the pact with County Executive Steve Bellone and other officials.

Officials of the county's other unions cheered when the police deal was announced Thursday.The deal is the second major budget breakthrough in two days for Bellone. On Wednesday, Suffolk reached an agreement to sell the county nursing home in Yaphank to private operators.

The police contract, retroactive to January 2011, is the first in about 20 years that needed no arbitration. It must be ratified by union members and approved by the county legislature.

Legis. William J. Lindsay (D-Holbrook), presiding officer of the legislature, said the agreement is "how collective bargaining is supposed to work."

And the fact that it was completed with a pay freeze and without an arbitrator will change the way unions negotiate contracts, he said.

"It's going to change the whole pattern of bargaining," Lindsay said. "Not just here. It will reflect on other police contracts."Current officers covered by the contract will not receive pay increases until mid-2013, when they'll get a 1.5 percent raise.

The pay freeze alone will save Suffolk more than $30 million from its projected $300 million deficit, Bellone said at a news conference with DiGerolamo and other officials. In addition, the agreement calls for freezing starting salaries for new officers at $42,000 until 2020.

"Finally, this agreement breaks the cycle of arbitration and retropay," Bellone said.

"This landmark 10-year contract will help save taxpayer dollars and improve public safety by making new Suffolk County officers more affordable," he said.

Because of the agreement reached with the police union, the county negotiated a health care deal with the nine remaining unions representing about 10,000 Suffolk employees. They also agreed to have new employees contribute 15 percent toward their health insurance premiums.

The agreement, when coupled with savings from the other county unions, will save Suffolk $17 million a year in health plan costs through 2020.

While those nine unions are onboard with making future employees cover a piece of their health insurance premiums, they have yet to negotiate labor contracts with the county.

Health contracts with the county's unions are negotiated separately from labor contracts. Bellone said the county plans to use the police labor contract as a baseline in negotiations.

A piece of the puzzle was restoring police patrols to the LIE and Sunrise. Former County Executive Steve Levy pulled Suffolk police off the LIE and Sunrise Highway in 2008 to save money by using sheriff's patrols.

"It's difficult for us to make a comment on this when we haven't seen it," said sheriff's Chief Michael Sharkey, a department spokesman. "It's going to impact our operation and so we want to take a look at the long-term and short-term impacts on the taxpayer."

He added, "It's not our deal. Our only concern is how it's going impact our operations."Sharkey said he does not think there would be any layoffs in his agency, given how well the Bellone administration works with law enforcement.

"The sheriff's concern now is that this deal would be the best deal for taxpayers," he said.

When deputies first were assigned to Sunrise and the LIE, Sharkey said their main concern was to provide excellent service to the people in Suffolk. "We believe our deputies provided that over the past four years."

"We now are positioned to base decisions again on public safety and not cost," Bellone said. A number of provisions were added to the police contract, Bellone and DiGerolamo said. First, the contract contains a no-layoff clause -- positions held by officers will not be contracted out nor will they be given to civilians, Bellone said. Also, it now will take officers 12 years rather than the current five to reach the top pay of $108,000.

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