Town police officers in Rockland County continue to rake in sky-high salaries -- some among the highest in the U.S. -- while local officials struggle to balance budgets and watch the number of officers dwindle.
Two police chiefs in Rockland County earn more than their counterparts in some of the nation's biggest cities. Clarkstown's police chief, Michael Sullivan, is the highest-paid chief in the county, with a base salary of $264,758, which exceeds the salaries of New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, at $205,180, and Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa, at $196,000 a year.
Sullivan defended his salary and those of his officers.
"I think residents are concerned about the money, and I think they're fair to be," Sullivan said. "But I don't think we should be defensive about what we do. We should be proud of what we do. We're the only profession allowed by law to use deadly physical force, and I don't think you want to give that to your lowest bidder."
By historical standards, Sullivan's salary is not all that high. Ramapo Police Chief Peter Brower earned $321,719 in the fiscal 2012, according to a report filed by the Empire Center For New York State Policy. Brower was the highest-paid municipal employee in the state for that fiscal year.
Brower told Newsday that his salary for that year was "an anomaly." In the midst of a budget crunch -- which resulted in a 9 percent tax hike for the current fiscal year -- Brower's salary was cut to $228,150.
As budget pressures mount on Rockland towns, local officials and outside experts question whether the towns can afford to pay police the current salaries.
"How much value do you put on public safety?" asked Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The excesses are definitely there; $300,000 salaries in small towns. That's a red flag."
It's not just the chiefs earning the big bucks. Rockland's police departments rank toward the top of the national range for patrolmen's salaries as well.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest-paid patrol officers from U.S. metropolitan areas are in California -- in the San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara regions -- where the mean patrolmen's wage is $96,030. Officers in the Nassau-Suffolk area ranked fifth on a Bureau of Labor Statistics list of best salaries for patrolmen, with a mean of $85,710. The mean annual wage for police and sheriff's patrol officers across the country is $56,260.
In Clarkstown, patrolmen's salaries exceed even the most lofty standards, averaging $126,751 for 111 officers.
Local residents, many of whom would not give their full name because they have friends or family members on the force, expressed concern over officers' paychecks.
"I feel that the Clarkstown police officers make a lot of money -- a lot more money than any other police department in the country," said Doreen F. of New City. "Maybe we should have one police department throughout Rockland County and then it'll be different. But right now, they're overpaid for the amount of area they're covering."
"The police salaries are exorbitant," added John Marc. "I think that all government officials should have their salaries reviewed annually."
Others noted the high level of safety in the town and applauded the officers for doing a great job.
"I feel that the police commissioner's salary is much too high, but I totally believe that the police officers deserve what they're getting," said Debra Silver, 51, of Haverstraw.
"Maybe they should get their money working in Manhattan, where there's a lot of crimes," quipped Greg C. of New City. "I feel safe. It's a great town, but it's a lot of money. I should be a police commissioner -- I'd be a multimillionaire."
MAXING OUT IN FIVE YEARS
A Clarkstown officer in the police academy is hired with an annual salary of $57,900, but gets a hefty boost each year -- to $69,000 the first year -- until the salary hits a cap of $115,800 after five years on the force, according to Sullivan. Other Rockland town patrolmen's salaries are comparable, while rank-and-file salaries in New York City and Westchester County are much lower.
NYPD officers start at $41,975 a year and top out at $76,488 after five years.
In Yonkers -- where Police Commissioner Charles Gardner earns $180,517 annually -- police officers start at $57,295 and top out at $81,111. New Rochelle and Mount Vernon officers earn similar base salaries. Officials from the White Plains mayor's office would not make police salary data available.
Throughout Rockland County, police officers must hit their top pay grade within five years, a requirement under county legislation adopted in 1936. Local officials see that requirement as a key part of a complex picture. Some suggest that the top salary levels in place in Rockland might be appropriate for veteran police officers, but not for officers who have been on a force for only five years.
"This is unsustainable. You cannot continue down this road," said Haverstraw Supervisor Howard Phillips. "I don't think most people in the public have a problem with an officer making over $100,000. But in five years? Realistically, they shouldn't reach that mark until the 10th, 15th year."
The base salaries mentioned above do not include overtime, holiday or longevity pay, or vacation and sick time buybacks. Overtime is mostly optional for police officers; but Clarkstown's chief -- who has been with the department for 25 years -- has seen officers earn up to an additional $40,000 per year in overtime pay.
"We have great police departments. They're fast and professional and we have a very safe town," said Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart. "The problem is, we can't afford it. That's just the reality of it."
Police chiefs and commissioners from Orangetown, Ramapo, Stony Point, Haverstraw, Yonkers, Mount Vernon and New Rochelle did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
DIVIDED OPINION AMONG SUPERVISORS
Not all local officials are critical of the six-figure salaries.
"I am a big proponent of our police department, and I think they do a fantastic job," said Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence. "When it comes to public safety, it's not about the dollars. It's about putting the technology in that we need."
Clarkstown Supervisor Alexander Gromack agreed.
"Our safety doesn't happen by accident," he said. "It happens by dedication, professionalism and hard work."
Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, however, has called the county's police salaries "out of control."
"It is clear that salary increases lead to higher pension contributions and result in future mandated costs for the taxpayers within those municipalities," Vanderhoef noted.
Michael Hull, a Bardonia resident who is a board member for Clarkstown Taxpayers -- a community watchdog group and frequent critic of the town's spending habits -- wants to see police paychecks chopped.
"Police budgets and salaries have gone up every year, and Clarkstown is an extremely safe area," he said. "Most of the issues are with traffic and the Palisades Mall. The type of crime here doesn't warrant the pay."
Sullivan admitted the No. 1 complaint in the town is traffic: more than 6,000 traffic tickets were issued last year.
Clarkstown saw its last homicide on Nov. 2009.
HIGH SALARIES = DWINDLING FORCES
The big salaries have restricted hiring. Town officials say they no longer can afford to hire new officers. They choose to save money by not filling police positions that become vacant. The result is that the number of officers in all five Rockland town police departments has decreased in recent years. Police brass is warning that the trend is dangerous.
"You need to take preventive measures to have an effective force," Sullivan said. "We're an affluent community, but we have a serious drug problem. We have an impact on that, and we don't want to see that change. I couldn't cut patrol any more than they've been cut."
Clarkstown has dipped to 159 officers, a 20-year low. In 2009, the force was at 173. Sullivan and PBA president John Hanchar would like to see the number of officers increase to about 200.
"My absolute minimum in staffing is 163 officers; that's why we have a lot of overtime," Sullivan said. "We're trying our best to economize the best we can. But the number of officers we've hit, if we go below that, we'd have to severely cut our services."
Orangetown's force, now at 80 officers, has shrunk 20 percent in the past 10 years.
"We were at 100 a decade ago, and it's steadily dwindling," said Stewart, the town supervisor in Orangetown. "We had to make tough choices."
Similarly, Haverstraw has dropped from 73 to 68 officers in the past year. Ramapo has gone from 124 officers five years ago to 102 today.
"When we started going into this recession, we had a handshake agreement that we would go through this period of time and not hire new officers but make promotions to keep the brass full," St. Lawrence said. "We weren't going to bring on new officers as a way to help us through this Great Recession."
Ramapo is planning to hire nine new officers in 2013.
"We've reached that tipping point now," St. Lawrence said. "We've asked officers to come in and work more, and then the overtime goes up. It makes sense to bring in more officers."
BUSTING TAX CAP TO PAY COPS
Several local leaders blame hefty police salaries for the significant tax increases that have occurred in succeeding years in Rockland. Of the five Rockland communities, only Stony Point remained within the state-imposed 2 percent tax increase cap for 2013. Supervisors say police salaries have ballooned to the point where they represent the main financial burden for taxpayers.
Phillips noted that Haverstraw's police budget constitutes nearly 65 percent of the town's general budget. He called the police salary system "fatally flawed." Taxes in Haverstraw went up 8.8 percent in 2013 after the town adopted a budget that included $17 million for the Police Department.
"The police budget alone exceeded the 2 percent tax cap for 2013," Phillips said. "So where do I go? Where does the municipality look to cut? We've been so frugal and fiscally conservative with our money. Meanwhile, the assessment base is eroding."
Clarkstown residents are bracing to absorb a 6.2 percent increase in town property taxes in 2014. That will finance a budget of $137.3 million, which allots $21.2 million to police salaries and about $3.5 million for police overtime. Total operational costs for the Police Department come to nearly $33 million, about 25 percent of the town's overall budget.
Hanchar -- the PBA president in Clarkstown -- argued that Rockland County taxpayers are getting their money's worth. Citing safety rankings, Clarkstown was in the No. 35 slot in CNN Money's Best Places to Live in 2012.
"You pay about less than a cup of coffee a day for 24-hour, around-the-clock police protection," Hanchar said. "And they're probably the best trained in the county. And we don't have multimillion-dollar lawsuits that bankrupt the town because we have competent officers who know how to do their job."
Stony Point Supervisor Geoffrey Finn conceded that his officers "make a lot of money" but said there is not much that can be done.
"I'm not responsible for the outrageous contracts they were given 10, 15 years ago," Finn said. "They bid high, we bid low and we meet in the middle. That's the best we can hope for."
O'Donnell, the professor at John Jay, said there is a case to be made for high police salaries. He emphasizes that big salaries are the result of negotiations agreed to by local officials.
"All of this is the product of negotiation or arbitration," he said. "This is being examined all over the country. The cost of government employees and their pensions are being examined, and the question is, are these things sustainable in a country that's getting poorer?"