The Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees is making a dishonest argument in the battle over lag pay for its members, but backing it up with a true and troubling assertion.
The union is furious that County Executive Steve Bellone is ready to implement a pay lag that would cost 5,200 workers 10 days’ worth of pay in 2016, spread out over 10 pay periods. Each worker would receive the money when he or she leaves the financially strapped county’s employ, but it would be paid out at the level they are earning at that later date, almost certainly at a higher rate.
Union members picketed Bellone on Jan. 22 with signs that read “Don’t Take My Mortgage Payment.” The union is disseminating a disingenuous message that Bellone is hurting their ability to pay rent or buy food. But the union isn’t advertising the fact that Bellone’s ability to enact the pay lag stems from a clause in the contract members approved in 2012. Union leaders agreed to it in return for things they wanted for members then. Now, the union is trying to back out of the deal.
The union also isn’t acknowledging that Bellone offered another way to make up the money — by letting a benefits reserve account with an unnecessarily cautious 24 months’ worth of money sink to a 12-month balance. That never even got to a vote of the members.
The AME is wrong in playing the victim. But the union is right to say maneuvers like the lag pay are disastrous ways of kicking trouble down the road, and that Suffolk’s deepening reliance on them shows just how precarious the county’s finances are.
This deal would save about $11.5 million this year, but could cost as much as $30 million when workers collect their 2016 pay at higher rates in the future. In November, the county agreed to let police officers defer, over two years, as much as 300 hours of overtime and vacation pay until retirement, which would save a few bucks now but cost our children a lot more later.
Since 2011, the county has borrowed more than $300 million from the state to pay annual pension costs. The county is grabbing $30 million a year it must repay from a fund intended to stabilize sewer rates. It essentially borrowed $70 million on the H. Lee Dennison county office building in 2013 and will have to repay $96 million over 20 years to retire that debt. And it has $1.5 billion in bonded debt, a number that mostly doesn’t even include all this financial gimmickry.
The challenges Bellone has faced are extraordinary, from inheriting a budget in shambles to the latest problem, a loss of as much as $50 million a year in sales taxes because of the steady drop in gasoline prices.
The county is projecting future annual deficits of at least $100 million, and the number could be much higher if recent declines in sales-tax revenue continue. That’s not sustainable.
So, even as he keeps the county’s head above water, Bellone has to come up with an economic vision for Suffolk County that gets costs under control and matches them to revenues. It’s the depth of that challenge and the failure to meet it, and not some sniping from disingenuous union heads, that the fight over lag pay really makes clear.
— The editorial board