Suffolk lawmakers unanimously approved a deal with the county's largest municipal union Tuesday that pledges no layoffs and sets lower salaries for new hires, but could cost up to $50 million over the next five years.
The county legislature also passed a $2.76 billion budget for 2014. General fund taxes will remain frozen, but residents of the police district covering Suffolk's five western towns will see a 2.34 percent increase next year, or $20.65 for an average homeowner.
The spending plan includes the controversial deficit-closing proposal to tap environmental reserves to cover $32.8 million in rising debt repayments.
County Executive Steve Bellone, citing improved sales tax growth and reduced payroll costs, predicts that Suffolk will end 2013 with a deficit of only $10 million to $13 million, after closing 2012 with a $155 million shortfall. Legislators spent little time on those details, having already amended Bellone's budget at the last meeting.
More debate centered on the four-year pact with the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees union, which has 4,959 active members, or 54 percent of the county's overall workforce. The union represents white- and blue-collar workers, from nurses to clerks to janitors to water-quality testers.
The contract is retroactive to the start of 2013 and stretches through 2016, with workers getting no raises in the first two years, a 2 percent increase in 2015 and 3 percent in 2016.
AME leaders agreed to lower starting salaries for new hires by between 1 to 5 percent, and to lengthen the time it will take them to reach the top pay step. The union also agreed to give Bellone the option to defer up to 10 days of workers' pay until they leave the county.
In exchange, AME workers received what Bellone aide Tom Vaughn called a "broad, sweeping" no-layoff clause that covers any privatization attempt. Nearly 500 AME workers have been laid off since 2012, many from Bellone's closing of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility.
"Having this no-layoff clause is a great relief to us," said Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), while acknowledging that "it's not the best contract in the world because it has two years without raises."
Legislative budget analysts estimate that the deal, with the backloaded 5 percent raises and the resulting pension increases, would cost nothing next year, $1.8 million in 2015, $11.4 million in 2016 and a total of $37.3 million in the first two years after it expires.
That expense, however, pales in comparison to the $269 million analysts said Bellone's deal with police officers will cost Suffolk through 2018. That eight-year contract, reached last year, also had a no-layoff clause.
"In the midst of our economic troubles, this agreement will provide job security to our workforce, but the overall package is fiscally prudent," Michael Finland, AME executive vice president, said of his union's deal with Bellone.
Also at Tuesday's meeting, the legislature:
Confirmed John O'Neill as social services commissioner. O'Neill, 49, of Massapequa Park, was a deputy commissioner, and has been acting boss of the 1,600-employee department since Commissioner Gregory Blass retired in February. O'Neill, over a five-year term, will make $162,760 a year.
"He's a walking money-saving machine," said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), noting O'Neill's financial background and success in finding department efficiencies.
Some lawmakers, however, criticized the department under O'Neill for putting more of the county's homeless families in larger shelters, burdening particular communities, rather than spreading them among smaller shelters across Suffolk. Officials say the larger, 300-plus-person shelters save money and provide expanded services.
Loosened regulations on some building and sales activity on protected farmland. The changes are meant to boost the region's agritourism business.
They allow farms for which the county owns development rights to operate retail stands year-round, rather than seasonally; to double the size of their stands to up to 1,000 square feet; and to expand both the amount of on-site production and the types of products sold, to include some branded merchandise such as T-shirts.
Supporters say the changes will keep more county farms in business as the agricultural industry becomes more tourism-focused. Environmentalists argue that the new law will remove focus from the farmland preservation program's mission of keeping the region's food and water supply clean.
2014 Suffolk County budget
2.34 percent increase for the county police district -- $20.65 more per year for the average homeowner. Brookhaven, Huntington, Smithtown, Islip and Babylon residents pay police district taxes. County general fund tax remains unchanged. Overall, budget is within the 1.66 percent state tax cap.
Estimated growth of 3 percent in 2014
$32.8 million taken from sewer assessment stabilization reserve fund to cover a spike in debt service payments
$4 million from new electronic slot machine hall expected to open in September '14; estimated $20 million increase in traffic-ticket and red-light-camera receipts
SOURCE: Suffolk County