Nassau County paid more than a half-million dollars each in salary and termination pay to seven retiring police officers last year, and another county worker won back pay in a labor dispute that boosted his salary above $500,000, records show.
The eight workers who broke through $500,000 level were the highest paid of the county's 300 top earners in 2014, according to the Nassau Legislature's Office of Budget Review.
Budget review did not separate retirees from active employees in its second annual report this month, but Newsday found that 122 of the 300 top earners retired or resigned last year. The combined salaries and termination pay of the 122 departing workers ranged from $225,219 to $572,000. All but two were members of the police department.
The office also reported that 28 county workers earned more in overtime last year than in salary. They included three parks department workers: a greenskeeper, with a base salary of $61,502, who earned a total $138,296 last year; a groundskeeper, whose base salary was $61,124, who collected a total of $141,403, and a $55,450-a-year greenskeeper, who was paid $124,793.
Those workers were identified only by title and included 12 police officers, a police detective and seven public works employees.
Nassau's highest-paid employee was former Chief of Detectives John Capece, who retired and collected $570,823. He had been replaced because of his involvement in a politically charged case that ended the career of Police Commissioner Thomas Dale. Former Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice found that Dale, Capece and police Sgt. Sal Mistretta intervened in an election dispute involving the campaign of a third-party candidate for Nassau County executive.
After Capece, the highest payouts went to retirees Sgt. John Gieschen, who received $541,264; Officer Gary Renick, who got $538,466; Lt. Det. Raymond Coté, who collected $535,506; Lt. Brian Fitzgerald, who was paid $525,909; Sgt. Robert Bua, who got $516,298, and Support Division Chief Lorraine Hannon, who collected $501,928. Most of the retired officers declined to comment or could not be reached.
Coté said that after serving as commander of the Third Squad, he was asked to take over the district attorney squad, which required him to work through holidays and other time off as he supervised detectives handling major crimes.
"I was a very busy man," Coté said. "I spent many nights working when I should have been home. There were times I was not able to be with my family when the aspect of the investigation was such that it needed me to be there."
Robert Piazza, an active employee in the county's traffic and parking violation agency, was paid $506,877. His earnings included a one-time back-pay award of more than $350,000 after an arbitrator ruled he had been wrongfully fired in 2010 and ordered his reinstatement. Piazza said the overall figure "is misleading in that it reflected earnings from a 4 1/2 year period."
Nassau's budget woes
Nassau has been struggling for decades to balance its budget without borrowing to pay costs that should be paid with operating funds, such as police termination pay. A state oversight board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, took control of the county's finances in 2011 because of recurring deficits and instituted a wage freeze that was lifted last year after county unions agreed to contract concessions.
The police payouts are lower than they have been in the past because of a severance cap instituted in 2009 that limits severance pay to two times an officer's salary, which is described as base pay plus longevity, shift differential and holiday pay.
Before the cap took effect, some retiring police brass walked away with nearly $700,000 in salary and severance.
In 2010, Mangano lifted the severance cap for one year in an effort to encourage the highest-paid cops to leave. Retiring Chief of Patrol Robert Turk collected $876,078.35 in salary and severance that year, and Deputy Commissioner Robert McGuigan received $865,55.92.
Severance includes unused sick time; vacation pay; personal days; sick leave incentive days, which are earned at the rate of two per year if no sick leave is taken that year; blood donation days and other accumulated time. It does not include pension payments.
E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy think tank, said, "Only in Nassau would a cap with a supposed limitations produce payouts of $500,000. Almost any place else in the country, this would leave people flabbergasted and shaking their heads."
He added, "The problem is not the individuals. These guys are getting what they're entitled to. The problem is the system that creates this mass of big payoffs every cycle."
NIFA chairman Jon Kaiman said the control board lifted the pay freeze last year after unions agreed to "real true life concessions that will structurally change the county's fiscal future forever."
Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said the "labor agreements ... save hundreds of millions of dollars for taxpayers as they cap termination pay and require new employee contributions toward health care and pension costs." Active employees who were among the top earners are all in law enforcement. The highest paid was Police Officer James Laurelli, who made $295,213 last year.
PBA chief addresses issue
Police Benevolent Association president James Carver said Laurelli earned his pay working nights in the driving-while-intoxicated testing unit, which also involves large amounts of daytime court testimony. "When he goes to court, it's all overtime," Carver said.
Carver said he was responding on behalf of Laurelli and Renick, the highest paid police-officer retiree. Renick also had worked the DWI testing detail and earned large amounts of overtime, Carver said.
Carver and Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, said the county's decreased labor force resulted in high overtime for remaining workers. County records show 7,221 full-time employees were on the payroll at the end of 2014 compared with 8,159 at the end of 2009, an 11.5 percent reduction.
Nassau paid nearly $110 million in overtime last year on top of the regular $586 million payroll; $67.9 million in overtime was earned by members of the police department.
Laricchuita defended the high overtime for the parks department groundskeepers. "There's so few workers left in the parks that there's only a handful of people that can get the overtime," Laricchuita said. "It's not like they're getting free money. They're working for it."
Carver said the police force has been reduced by 500 officers since 2009. "Police work doesn't stop and caseloads get that much bigger," he said. "The result is higher overtime."
Brian Hoesel, president of the Superior Officers Association, said if the county wants to reduce overtime, "they ought to hire some cops."
Kaiman said, "One of the responsibilities of those who manage government is to be on top of overtime and make sure it's managed properly." He said one of NIFA's goals in lifting the wage freeze was to hire additional police and other employees at lower salary levels to reduce overtime.
"The overtime issue is not a police issue, it is a government issue, a civil service issue," Kaiman said. "The police just happen to be the higher paid."