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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Suffolk quick on union deal, but Nassau ...

How was Suffolk County able to swiftly reach a tentative agreement with its police officers' union while Nassau's still waiting for a deal?

How did Suffolk get all 10 of its public employee unions to agree on finding millions of dollars in health care savings?

The answers lie in key leadership, structural and other differences between the counties. Most of Suffolk's contracts, for one, were about to expire. So, unlike Nassau, Suffolk did not need union agreement to reopen existing contracts to find savings.

As for health care, Suffolk has had for two decades a self-insured health care plan, which covers union, nonunion and elected employees. Once a month, the sides work together to oversee the plan and make necessary adjustments.

That's how Suffolk will find $17 million in health care savings by next year. Some of that could come from increased co-pays from all employees.

A decade ago, Nassau also moved to a self-insured plan. Instead of savings, however, the effort cost Nassau $70 million over just a few months. Eleven people, including a chief deputy county executive, were convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the scandal.

The result? In Nassau -- where employees are covered under the state's health care plan -- each union negotiates health care issues. In Suffolk -- where neither side wanted to change the system -- keeping the self-insured plan became a bargaining chip.

Suffolk got its desired savings; unions got an agreement to extend the self-insured plan through 2020 -- and keep current and future retiree benefit entitlements intact as well.

Another difference on the health care issue is this: In Suffolk, elected officials took the lead in passing a bill to contribute to their own health care benefits. In Nassau, there's never been such an effort, although the county in 2002 approved having new nonunion workers make contributions.

Other differences? The tentative agreement with the county's Police Benevolent Association came after old-fashioned, face-to-face negotiations. That hasn't happened with PBA contracts for some two decades in Suffolk or Nassau, where agreements too often came from arbitrators because neither side wanted the heat for unfavorable results.

What's in the tentative, and, at 10 years, lengthy agreement? Can't know until we see a copy. But it is said to include no salary hikes through the middle of next year (although police will continue to get step increases) and a no-layoff provision.

There's also said to be a "me too" clause guaranteeing that another union's better deal goes to the PBA, too. And a change that will more than double the time it takes new hires to reach top pay to 12 years.

For Suffolk, the tentative agreement appears to slow the increase in police compensation costs. The increase in Nassau also has been slowed -- but by a state control board's two-year wage and step-increase freeze on police and other unions.

More differences? In Suffolk, the projected health care and, should it be approved, PBA contract savings will go into the 2013 budget after they're finalized. In Nassau, the current budget included $150 million in labor savings before as-yet-negotiated agreements -- which is why Nassau has had layoffs and is seeking to cut more employees.

In Suffolk, County Executive Steve Bellone never publicly berated unions; in Nassau, the relationship between County Executive Edward Mangano and union leadership has been openly acrimonious.

The most striking difference? It came up in last week's news conferences: In Suffolk, the county executive, lawmakers and union leadership willfully decided to fight the fiscal crisis together.

In Nassau, after three fiscal crises, alas, they're still fighting each other.

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