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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

In Suffolk, bowing to the power of the people

A police cruiser outside of the Suffolk County

A police cruiser outside of the Suffolk County Third Precinct in Bay Shore. (March 2, 2010) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk's police officers' union responded with lightning speed Monday to criticism of a tentative pact that could have had the highest-paid officers earning almost $200,000 a year by 2020.

The sides must have set a world record coming up with a new tentative agreement that would do two necessary things: reduce the term of the initial pact, which at 10 years was too long; and stop automatic, compounding salary increases in 2016, leaving the sides to negotiate wages for the last two years of the tentative deal.

There's much more to be vetted about the proposal, much more. And that is certain to come as the measure moves through the independent legislative office of budget review, public hearings and, early next month, to a vote of the legislature itself.

But for the present, let us stop to savor something unusual, something deliciously rare.

The tentative memorandum changed because the public didn't like it. That's right -- protestations to the contrary from the administration aside -- a lot of people who pay taxes in Suffolk County didn't like what they read about the pact on the front page of Monday's Newsday.

Neither, it appears, did a lot of legislators, whose approval -- along with that of union membership -- is necessary if the agreement is to become a deal.

The administration's view is that the tentative pact works for taxpayers because it trims costs now -- $17 million annually from a county health care plan and some $30 million in two years of retro-pay that police agreed to give up.

But future taxpayers likely would receive the most benefit (not counting prospective pension contributions), because future police officers would bear increased costs, including lower base pay, 15 percent contributions to health care and 12, instead of five, years to top pay.

The pact, in the midst of a fiscal crisis, manages to kick significant savings down the road.

Because public employee unions -- along with nonunion employees -- typically follow police contracts, it is unlikely that current employees will contribute significantly to health care costs. It's likely, however, that other unions also will seek longer-term contracts and significant wage increases.

In short, the county likely will end up saving now and paying current employees more later. The significant savings -- and they will be significant -- won't come until future hires get lower compensation.

To be fair, the county has to reckon with the reality that its law enforcement unions -- even now, if the deal falls through -- have the option of going to binding arbitration.

Those proceedings typically end up raising police compensation while requiring little in the way of concessions in return.

So far, however, the terms of Suffolk's tentative police contract are being debated in the open, rather than in the dark. Which is why Bellone, the police union and lawmakers -- for the first time in almost forever -- are feeling the heat.

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