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Ruling on Islip workers' perks may resonate across state

Town of Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan poses next

Town of Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan poses next to two cars used by town employees in Islip. (Mar. 9, 2010) Photo Credit: John Dunn

Golf course groundskeepers. A clerical worker. Computer programmers.

These and other Islip Town employees may soon get back taxpayer-funded vehicles to drive home every night under a Public Employment Relations Board ruling that could resonate across the state.

The state board ruled on March 1 that the Town of Islip violated state labor law in 2008 when Supervisor Phil Nolan ordered about 45 unionized employees to give up their town-owned take-home vehicles without negotiating with the union. The town employee union, Teamsters Local 237, challenged the move.

Though the vehicles were not included in a labor contract, Administrative Law Judge Elena Cacavas ruled that giving them to rank-and-file employees over 20 years was a long-standing "past practice" - a legal threshold making the vehicles a subject of collective bargaining.

As a result, cities, counties, towns and villages from Hempstead to Buffalo may not be able to make changes in such policies without bargaining with the union first, said E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy at the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute.

"It will have a chilling effect," McMahon said.

Nolan said the town would appeal Cacavas' decision to the full Public Employment Relations Board, which decides labor disputes between municipalities and workers.

"Our course of action was in the best interests of the taxpayers," Nolan said. "These vehicles are town-owned vehicles for town purposes. Our charge was to tighten up all these things and ensure the taxpayers were getting the maximum bang for their buck."

But Barry Peek, the attorney for Local 237, said, "There are certain things you can reform unilaterally and some things, you can't. You have to sit down and bargain."

Nolan said the take-home vehicles are a relic of past administrations. Though town policy has always stated that vehicles should go only to elected officials and employees who need to respond to emergencies or work at multiple sites, over time the list of eligible employees had expanded.

Slashing about 72 take-home vehicles in 2008 has saved the town about $250,000 a year, town officials said.

Take-home vehicles are a common perk across Long Island, but policies vary. About 235 Hempstead Town workers, some unionized, have them, though it's not part of the contract, a town spokesman said.

In Huntington, about 50 employees have vehicles, including Town Supervisor Frank Petrone.

The town tried to revoke take-home vehicle privileges for about 10 employees in 2008 but Local 237 challenged the move, said town spokesman A.J. Carter. A settlement allowed current employees to keep their vehicles, but cut them for new hires.

In the Islip decision, Cacavas ordered that vehicles be returned to 36 employees, who must also be paid retroactively for commuting costs. Nine who had vehicle privileges revoked are no longer employed.

Islip won't have to buy new cars, as the former take-home cars are in vehicle pools available for work-related use.

But reassigning 36 vehicles for personal commuting could cost taxpayers more than $130,000 per year, town officials said.

Even union members and officials appeared to have mixed feelings about the message the decision will send to the public.

Peter Kletchka, a project supervisor in the public works department whose take-home car was revoked in 2008, said Tuesday that the town should have negotiated the policy change with the union.

"I respect the town's right to take them away," he said. "I do have mixed feelings about it. I don't think the town has the obligation to give everybody a car just to come to and from work."

Added John Burns, Long Island director of Teamsters Local 237: "There's no way I'm going to get sympathy from taxpayers right now. People are losing jobs and health care, and we're talking about giving people back cars so they can drive from work to home."

With Stacey Altherr, Nomaan Merchant, Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Mitchell Freedman, Patrick Whittle and Reid J. Epstein

Who could get their cars back

Job titles of some of the Town of Islip employees whose take-home vehicles would be reinstated under a state Public Employment Relations Board ruling. The town is appealing.

  • Network and systems coordinator
  • Systems programmer
  • Senior programmer analyst
  • Principal clerk
  • Assessment assistant
  • Senior assessment assistant
  • Real property appraiser
  • Principal planner
  • Traffic technician
  • Engineering aide
  • Public works project supervisor
  • Maintenance mechanic
  • Groundskeeper, golf course
  • Labor crew leader
  • Sanitation site crew leader
  • Custodial worker

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