Revised Suffolk police contract still a good deal for taxpayers

A file photo of Suffolk County Executive Steve A file photo of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. (April 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

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Absent a crystal ball, there's no way to tell whether guaranteeing raises to Suffolk police only through 2016, rather than 2020, will help or hurt the county.

Faced with a legislature balking at a 10-year contract, in which raises for 2012-20 were set in stone, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and the Police Benevolent Association made a quick change. Now the contract, which needs the approval of union members and the legislature, will run only until 2018, and the raises will be set only until 2016. At that point, only the wage issue will be reopened and the salary set via negotiation or arbitration for the last two years.

If, between now and 2016, inflation is low and other Long Island forces, including Nassau County and village police forces, get contracts with small or nonexistent raises, Suffolk County will likely fare better thanks to its shortened obligation. But if inflation runs higher than 3 percent or other local departments get better contracts in the interim, county taxpayers will wish Bellone and the legislature had locked in a set price for policing.

Critics of the original agreement argued that it made guarantees too far into the future and wasn't tough enough in containing police pay and perks. But within the badly rigged rules of this game, with the Triborough Amendment and mandatory arbitration, Bellone really did about as well as possible.

The Triborough Amendment says the work conditions of unionized public employees remain in place after their contracts expire. So while union members without a contract don't get annual raises (though they usually do retroactively when a new deal is struck), their step increases, benefits and work rules that increase overtime continue. This makes it almost impossible to force concessions on these unions.

Pushing back on the other side is mandatory arbitration, where the rules say the contracts of police departments on Long Island can only be compared to other Island departments to determine fair wages and benefits. Over the years, that has created a leapfrogging of higher and higher salaries -- and made police here the envy of the nation. The result is that each department demands -- and customarily gets -- as much or more than the last department did.

What matters about this new Suffolk PBA contract is that it breaks that cycle and changes the trajectory. The deal keeps the county from paying out a lump sum of $30 million it doesn't have for retroactive raises for 2010 and '11. It creates a 15 percent health care contribution for new cops, which may well be forced on other unions. It corrals $17 million more in health care savings from the PBA. And it drastically reduces starting salaries and what new hires will make over the first 12 years of their police careers.

Neither rendition of this deal is a home run, but home runs aren't possible under this system -- except when the unions are up to bat. What this contract does represent is a solid base hit for Bellone, whether the raises are cemented for four years or eight. In this rigged game, hitting singles is the best a municipality can do.

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