When Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone introduced his 2016 budget this month, he touted the fact that, for the fourth year in a row, there was no hike in the general fund property tax.
He didn't mention that police district taxes, which make up a larger share of the average county property tax bill, would go up 3 percent next year -- the fourth increase in a row.
Bellone's 2016 budget boosts police district taxes for the five western towns to $1,165 for the average homeowner, bringing the total increase to 10.5 percent since he took office in 2012.
The number of sworn officers in that time has dropped by 102 to 2,444.
While the police district tax makes up less than 10 percent of the average residential property tax bill in the five western towns, compared with 70 percent for school taxes, it is the second-largest portion. The county general fund property tax accounts for 1 percent of the average bill in Suffolk, or $88.99 under the 2016 budget.
The Bellone administration says the police tax increases are necessary to cover the costs of police contracts it negotiated with unions between 2012 and 2014. Officials said the agreements eventually will reduce police costs through lower-paid new hires.
But Republican county lawmakers and the GOP candidate for county executive in November, James O'Connor, are questioning the proposed tax increase. "Any property tax increase is painful, to the point where people are moving away from Long Island," said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). "Residents in my district are incredibly frustrated police district taxes are so high and continue to rise and they don't see the levels of policing they want."
Contract called a saver
Bellone administration officials say rising police salaries will be offset over time by contract provisions for lower salaries and benefits for new hires. Officials also say they likely saved money by negotiating agreements with the police unions instead of going to binding arbitration.
"We traded off short-term increases for significant long-term savings," said Justin Meyers, a Bellone spokesman, who noted the PBA contract passed the county legislature unanimously with bipartisan support.
The contracts with the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, the Detectives Association and Superior Officers Association provide annual raises through 2018, when the agreements expire.
Pay raises for rank-and-file officers will total 27 percent, including four raises this year totaling 6.11 percent. The Republican critics cite the top scale for detectives, who will earn $228,000 by 2018, including average longevity and overtime pay, as evidence of excessive compensation.
Under the agreements, new officers will start at $42,000 a year and take 12 years to reach the top salary of $111,506, instead of five years under the previous contract. Top salary for current officers is $139,324. An analysis by the county legislature's nonpartisan Budget Review Office found the county will save $210,000 per recruit over 12 years compared with the old contracts.
In Nassau County, property taxes that pay for police would increase 3.4 percent under the 2016 budget proposal that County Executive Edward Mangano submitted this month. The new revenue will cover increased salary, health insurance and pension costs, officials said.
Suffolk: Taxes not enough
Nassau's property tax levy for all funds would increase 1.3 percent next year, while the all-funds increase would be 1.32 percent in Suffolk. Each budget requires approval of the county legislature.
The Bellone administration says that property tax hikes alone have not been enough to cover increased police costs, which have risen by $82 million since 2012.
Suffolk shifted $40 million in red light camera ticket fines and traffic ticket revenue to cover police costs in 2015. Bellone's budget also proposes a new fee for homeowners and businesses when county police respond to security system false alarms that will generate $7.3 million for police in 2016.
Noel DiGerolamo, president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, defended the cost of the union's contract and said an influx of new, lower-paid hires will reduce county costs beginning in 2020 or 2022, depending on the rate of retirements.
"The people of Suffolk County understand the best law enforcement in the nation comes at a cost," he said. "It's a small price to pay to continue to enjoy the safety we live in."
But Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a retired Suffolk police detective, said he was skeptical of promises of future savings, predicting that unions will press for raises after current contracts expire.
"Bellone touted this as a money-saving contract, but every year our taxes in the police district are going up and up," said Trotta. "The cops deserve a fair salary, but not at the expense of bankrupting the county and making it unaffordable to live here."
O'Connor, an attorney and former North Hempstead Town board member who now lives in Great River, said Suffolk should ask the state to create a financial control board, with the power to freeze salaries, to oversee county finances.
DiGerolamo dismissed a freeze on police wages as "an outrageous, ludicrous concept," noting that no other Republicans attended O'Connor's news conference calling for a control board. "That's why nobody would stand next to him."
Said O'Connor: "There are runaway salaries and everyone is afraid to talk about it, because of the unions."