The real reason behind the precinct revamp

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Nassau County police cars outside the Fifth Precinct Nassau County police cars outside the Fifth Precinct in Elmont. The Fifth is one of four precincts that the county executive plans to convert to a "community policing center." (Jan. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Why does Nassau County want to cut half of its eight police precincts? The real answer was hinted at during Monday's legislative committee hearings.

Is it because of advances in technology? Nope. Finances? Closer. Is it because Nassau wanted and felt it needed to do a carefully calibrated end run around mandatory staffing agreements it made with its police union decades ago? Bingo.

Yes, the county's proposal to denude four precincts is tied to its quest to wrest significant savings from police unions -- and have some chance at withstanding a legal challenge that is certain to follow.

No one said that outright Monday, though police and other administration officials have said so privately for weeks. But more than once Monday, officials and lawmakers both mentioned the department's so-called "minimum manning" requirements.

The minimums, negotiated decades ago, mandate how much staff each precinct must have. Make the precincts geographically bigger, however, and the problems shrink.

Take overtime, for example. Under minimum manning, a precinct that comes up short an officer can only reach out to another precinct officer to fill the shift. With the new precinct boundaries, the replacement pool doubles, allowing more flexibility to spread around overtime in ways that could help cut overall costs.

The larger precincts also give the county a way to significantly reduce the force.

During Monday's hearing, police administrators specified the positions they want to eliminate: 47 sergeants, lieutenants and deputy inspectors; 32 police officers; 13 civilians and eight detectives from the closed crime lab.

The savings, they said during a public safety committee hearing, would be $20 million a year. However, during a finance committee hearing, administrators acknowledged they had no estimate of the new costs attached to the reorganization plan, such as creation of a new arrest-processing facility in Mineola.

The department's personnel budget accounts for a growing part of the county budget. And County Executive Edward Mangano has had no success in forcing the three police unions to cough up millions in concessions Nassau says it needs.

Most residents -- who, inexcusably, were forced to wait hours for an opportunity to speak to legislators Monday -- weren't talking about money or the unions. They wanted assurances that the proposal won't hurt public safety.

For weeks, Mangano and his deputies have been pushing the plan through robocalls, community meetings and, most recently, invitations for select civic groups to attend information sessions in Mineola.

Karen Montalbano of Baldwin was opposed until she went last week to a community meeting where administration and police officials explained the proposal.

After Monday's hearing, she's wavering again. She listened as administrators explained how many officers were to be cut; how keeping 177 patrol sectors under the reconfiguration never meant that 177 patrol cars would always cover them; about how money she thought had been borrowed to build a new precinct station in Baldwin also would be used to rehab other precincts; and how two of the four new precincts are located in a flood zone. "I'm back to point one," she said. "The stories keep changing."

The proposal was passed, along party lines, by the public safety committee Monday. But even Republicans, who have the majority, expressed concerns about what they heard.

"Work around this so there will be no closings, so we can keep the precincts the way they are," Legis. Denise Ford (R-Long Beach) told the county and its police unions. She also noted, correctly, given the county's financial crisis, "there are sacrifices that have to be made."

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