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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Deferral of Suffolk police pay is a risky game

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during a

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during a candidates forum in Brentwood, Tuesday, Oct. 20 2015. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's proposal to kick millions of dollars in police compensation costs into an uncertain future will net desperately needed savings for now -- and higher costs down the line.

It's a terrific deal for police officers who, should the proposal pass the county legislature, will gain the option of deferring as much as 100 hours of overtime, vacation and night differential pay for 2015 and 2016 until retirement.

The deferred compensation -- which could total 300 hours for officers able to opt for both years -- would be repaid down the line at higher rates because of raises and promotions yet to come.

Bellone's administration estimates that the plan would save Suffolk $1.7 million this year and $1.9 million next year, if 20 percent of the 1,640-member Police Benevolent Association opt in.

Although, frankly, the opportunity to bank compensation for the guarantee of higher contractually obligated rates later seems attractive enough to pull in a significantly higher percentage.

To be fair, Suffolk has no choice other than to cut costs, and the sooner the better, because proposed sales tax revenue are coming in significantly lower than officials had projected.

Which also makes the deferral plan a good deal for Suffolk's budget -- at least this year and next year.

And while the county contends that deferred compensation that police officers receive upon retirement would be "pension neutral," the measure states that opting into the deferral will not diminish pension benefits, or the county's pension contributions.

Taxpayers are certain to learn more when the pact is considered by lawmakers before Suffolk's 2016 budget gets a vote on Nov. 4.

Initially, a Bellone spokesman said the administration had no estimates on how much the deferrals would cost down the line.

Yesterday, however, they had one -- based, officials said, on what Suffolk paid out after lag payrolls in 2008, 2009 and 2012.

Back then, the county paid the deferral amounts plus about 5 percent over time.

Depending on the number of officers leaving the force, and when they leave, the actual percentage this time around could end up being higher, or lower.

Early on, some county lawmakers questioned the value of deferrals, and the sagacity of accumulating additional costs later for smaller savings now.

It's a fair question.

In Nassau, the county for decades agreed to what critics contend were overly generous municipal employee contracts.

Nassau always identified a revenue stream to pay for them.

Last year, when the county lifted a wage freeze, school speed cameras were supposed to fund the county's additional expense.

But lawmakers, after public outcry, repealed the program -- which is one reason the county this year is struggling to match expenses with revenue.

In Suffolk, officials call the deferral a tried and true way to correct for unrealized sales tax revenue.

And, they point out, Suffolk's proposed budget for next year is more realistic than Nassau's because it does not include revenue from proposed video lottery terminal gambling parlors -- which haven't been approved in either county.

Stay tuned for what Suffolk lawmakers will have to say.


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