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Start date for Suffolk County police class postponed

A Suffolk County police officer.

A Suffolk County police officer. Credit: Newsday / Michael E. Ach

Late last month, 130 potential recruits were called to the Suffolk County Police Academy in Brentwood, measured for their uniforms, asked to sign documents connected to hiring, and were told to give notice to their current employers so they could begin training June 26.

Hours later, the class began to get phone calls from the department, in effect, saying “Never Mind.”

At first, aides to County Executive Steve Bellone and Police Commissioner Tim Sini denied that a class had been scheduled to start or had been scrubbed. They just said timing of the next class still was under discussion.

However, Noel DiGerolamo, Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president, said, “A selected group was told to report to the academy and unfortunately the decision was changed.” He added he “sympathized with men and women who were put in a position” where they may have given their current employers notice only to find their prospective job may not materialize or be delayed for months or more.

When he heard about the reversal, DiGerolamo said he called Dennis Cohen, Bellone’s chief deputy, who told him “Due to current budget constraints, they were re-evaluating the start date of the class.”

Jason Elan, Bellone spokesman, later acknowledged there had been a June 26 start date, but “it was always clear it was tentative. There’s nothing unique here.” He also could not identify any budget issue that prompted the delay, but still expects a class to start “sometime later this summer.”

The union leader dismissed speculation that Bellone threatened to cancel the class as leverage to force pay concessions from the powerful police union. He said such talk was “fabricated” and had “no merit.”

Although he declined to get into specifics of negotiations, DiGerolamo said he has had no direct talks with Bellone and discussions with his aides “have been no different for the last several months.” Elan also rejected the idea the county executive tried to play hardball.

The police union has been in intermittent discussions since last fall when Bellone’s proposed 2017 budget sought state authorization for $60 million in borrowing over two years to pay for retiring officers’ unused sick and vacation time. GOP Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and DiGerolamo were opposed and the county legislature amended the budget to include $30 million in union concessions.

While opposed to borrowing, DiGerolamo believes the county needs more police to counter rising overtime costs and he also expressed willingness to work with the county as part of an extension of the current police contract, which is up at the end of 2018.

Sini, who is running for district attorney while remaining police commissioner, called for more police hiring in March to deal with ballooning overtime costs. Last year police overtime rose 6.5 percent to $47 million, which was $14.3 million over what was allotted in the 2016 budget. The county just graduated 173 rookies in April, the second-biggest class in departmental history.

Sini said that among the budget factors that have to be considered is the number of retirements, most of which come in by July 1. He said 107 police are retiring — 53 of them officers and the rest higher ranking officers. “We’re taking a careful look,” said Sini. “We want to get the size of the class right.” He added that none of the recruits had problems keeping their current jobs.

“They don’t confer with me over starting or canceling a class. It could be tomorrow or delayed for two years,” said DiGerolamo. But, he added, “After spending tens of thousands of . . . dollars processing the applicants, if they do not hire these people, it would clearly be a significant waste of county resources.”

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