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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Suffolk County moves to settle labor dispute with deputies

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his State of the County Address at the William H. Rodgers Legislative Building in Hauppauge on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Bellone administration — which in the past has touted negotiation over binding arbitration — declared an impasse Wednesday in long-stalled talks with the 250-member deputy sheriff’s union and moved to settle the labor dispute using an arbitrator.

The administration also disclosed Wednesday it will ”take immediate steps” to give $4 million in retroactive pay to union members deferred after County Executive Steve Bellone decided in 2012 to put Suffolk police officers back on patrol of the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway instead of the less costly deputies.

Bellone’s top deputy, Dennis Cohen, disclosed the decision to go to binding arbitration in a letter Wednesday morning to union officials. Late Tuesday night, union leaders said their members planned to picket Bellone’s State of the County speech and asked lawmakers not to attend.

In his letter, Cohen said the county has worked in “good faith” to negotiate a new contract with deputies. Cohen said “we appear to be at an impasse” and the administration agrees the union “has been without a contract too long” and will move to start binding arbitration.

However, John Becker, president of the Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff’s Police Benevolent Association, said he was “absolutely infuriated” by the county’s decision.

Wednesday night, as Bellone delivered his speech in Hauppauge to Suffolk legislators, sheriff deputy union members picketed outside. It was unknown if any legislators honored the union’s request they not attend Bellone’s speech.

Becker said binding arbitration would take at least a year to complete and still leave deputies without a contract because an arbitrator can only award a deal for three years.

Cohen maintained that talks with the union have stalled because its attempt “to break the existing pattern” of settlements with other law enforcement unions would increase the cost to taxpayers.

“The reason we agreed to deals with other law enforcement unions is because we felt those contracts represented a better deal for Suffolk county taxpayers,” he said. “The offer that the deputies union is insistent on would represent a worst deal.”

Bellone aides said the proposal by the union would jump deputy compensation ahead of that of the much larger correction officer’s union membership, which is also under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff. The aides, however declined to reveal details of the union’s proposals.

Becker said deputy and correction officer contracts leapfrogged one another in the past even though deputies have more training. He said the difference in the contract proposal is a matter of about $100 in base pay deputies never received after they were replaced on LIE patrol.

Becker also said Bellone’s claims about the cost of the deputies’ contract is “absolutely unbelievable,” noting the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association got a 28 percent raise for its members after it backed Bellone in his 2011 county executive run.

“The bottom line is that his whole campaign was financed by the PBA and now they are reaping the reward, while they are retaliating against another union that didn’t back him,” Becker said.

The $4 million deputy pay deferral was due at the end of last year as part of a deal former County Executive Steve Levy made with the union before Bellone took office.

The deal guaranteed deputies the right to patrol the highways through the end of 2017. After Bellone took office in 2012, he said the Levy deal was illegal, but a state Supreme Court judge ruled it valid because the county spent the money.

Until now the county has refused to pay because they had appealed the court ruling. Still unresolved is additional financial damages deputies suffered from the loss of highway work for those five years.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said a resolution to repay deputies the $4 million deferral will be filed at the May 10 meeting of the Suffolk legislature and final passage could occur in June.

Union officials say that the retroactive payments will range from $1,000 to as much as $20,000, depending on each deputy’s years on the job, rank and overtime worked during that period.

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