Nassau’s police officers, who for years were among the highest paid in the nation, earned an average $104,263 last year — the lowest average pay collected by members of the county’s Police Benevolent Association in nearly two decades.
The county legislature’s Office of Budget Review reported the average Police Benevolent Association member's pay in a memo to the county Legislature last month that analyzed 2018 earnings for all of Nassau’s full time employees. Average PBA earnings include income from overtime, holiday, longevity, shift differential and other salary enhancements, but not termination pay.
By comparison, PBA members in Suffolk County earned an average $138,346 last year, including all income except termination pay, according to Suffolk payroll records.
The average Nassau PBA earnings were only slightly higher than the average correction officer's total pay of $103,615 — another historical aberration because police officers traditionally have collected much higher salaries.
Some county and police officials suggested that average police earnings dropped as younger lower-paid officers joined the force, replacing highly paid PBA members who retired after 2014 contract concessions.
Budget review also reported that police overtime costs fell by $2 million last year to about $54.15 million — the lowest total police overtime in the six years budget review has been issuing year-end W-2 reports.
Those budget review reports indicate that PBA average pay has consistently dropped since 2013, when police officers collected an average $145,000. No similar trend is evident in Suffolk, where average earnings bobbed up and down during the past six years.
According to records and news reports, the average pay for Nassau PBA members last year was the lowest since about 2000.
In 1999, then-Nassau County Comptroller Fred Parola warned that contract deals would result in police officers earning an average $100,000 in the year 2000. That is equivalent to about $146,800 in today’s dollars, according to the website usinflationcalculator.com.
Nassau PBA president James McDermott could not be reached for comment about his members' average earnings.
Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county’s financial control board, did not address specifics in budget review's report.
“We are gratified to see that earlier contractual changes to the PBA’s wage schedule appear to have generated modest savings for the County,” Barsky said in an emailed statement. “However, we maintain that the county should continue to find ways to control overtime and increase productivity.”
All county unions agreed to concessions in new contracts signed in 2014. Those agreements expired at the end of 2017. Negotiations for new contracts were delayed by disputes between unions and County Executive Laura Curran over longevity payments and her choice for lead labor negotiator.
The 2014 contracts were part of a deal to end a three-year-old wage freeze NIFA had imposed on union employees. As part of the concessions, police starting salaries were lowered and the number of steps to reach full pay were increased.
Then-NIFA chairman Jon Kaiman led negotiations that lasted into the early hours of the morning before the new deals were struck.
“I was certainly told at the time that the deal changed the trajectory of the police pay in Nassau in a significant way,” Kaiman recalled.
“This was a time when we were talking about ending the wage freeze and working with the police union to reconstruct some of the contract issues in a way that made it possible for Nassau County to survive the economic climate that this was in,” said Kaiman, now a top aide to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
“Together we came up with what we all thought was a fair deal. It’s saved ultimately hundreds of thousands of dollars for Nassau residents,” Kaiman said.
Curran spokeswoman Chris Geed said the county "is beginning to see the fruits of earlier negotiations that stretched out the time to reach top pay for officers. Both the overtime reduction and reduction in the average pay are functions of recent hirings which reduced the average salary of the work force, thereby decreasing overtime rates."
However, she said the earlier contracts "did not ‘reduce’ any police officer’s pay. It stretched the time needed to reach top pay. Although we have made a start in tackling the affordability of the county’s workforce, we have a long way to go."
Officials say average earnings in 2018 were brought down by the retirement of older, higher-paid Nassau PBA members — some with base annual salaries of as much as $122,581 — and the hiring of new officers, who start at $35,000 a year.
But the low pay levels may not last.
E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit think tank based in Albany, said the Center’s SeeThroughNY database shows 562 Nassau County employees retired with police pensions between April 1, 2014, through March 31, 2018.
Those retirements include all police ranks, and 75 percent were eligible for annual pensions of more than $100,000 a year — an indication that many retirees had been high earners, McMahon said.
“So I think that is a big part of the explanation. They’ve had a lot of retirements, a lot of six-figure retirements,” McMahon said.
But the new police officers “pulling down the average” salary will push it back up again in the future as they reach full pay, McMahon said.
“I don’t think this is transformative, where they have dramatically changed the compensation of the highest-paid police force," McMahon said. "I think it’s the turnover to a younger police force.”
County financial reports to NIFA show the number of PBA employees increased from 1,514 at the end of 2013 to 1,742 at the end of February.
Suffolk County spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle said, “The county continues to regularly meet with the PBA in an effort to negotiate a fair contract for all parties.”
Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo said, “Given the circumstance of ongoing negotiations, we are not willing to comment on this article.”
In negotiating the expired eight-year PBA contract after taking office in 2012, Bellone, a Democrat, touted the deal as a better alternative to a binding arbitration award by an outside arbitrator. Such awards for decades had led to leapfrogging contract increases between Nassau and Suffolk police.
Suffolk’s contract created a two-tier pay system: new hires not only came in at lower salaries than officers already on the force, but it took them longer to reach the top pay scale.
The Suffolk PBA says that pay scale sunsets with a new contract; Bellone aides say the issue is subject to negotiation.
Paul Sabatino, an attorney and a former Suffolk chief deputy county executive, said the Nassau PBA salary numbers suggest it may be time for Suffolk to reconsider arbitration.
“The doctrine should be whatever goes up can also come down,” Sabatino said. “There may be a chance to reverse the leapfrog and bring salaries down to the level of Nassau.”
Brian Sullivan, president of Nassau’s Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said higher average pay for his members, at all ranks, was driven by increased overtime due to low staffing levels at the East Meadow Correctional Center.
“Everything in that is attributable to overtime,” Sullivan said of the budget review report. He said the county has more than 100 unfilled budgeted corrections positions, resulting in his members working double and triple shifts.
“Our guys are forced to stay; they are not able to go home," Sullivan said. "There are posts that have to be covered.”
The budget review reports show corrections overtime increased from about $16.3 million in 2013 to more than $24.2 million last year.
Geed, Curran's spokeswoman, said the county "is very excited about graduating one of its largest classes of correction officers since 2008 — approximately 40 individuals," on Friday. "We will be monitoring the impact on overtime moving forward."
COUNTY POLICE PAY*
- Average earnings for Nassau Police Benevolent Association members:
2018 — $104,263
2017 — $112,790
2016 — $122,011
2015 — $120,919
2014 — NA
2013 — $145,000
- Average pay for Suffolk PBA members:
2018 — $138,346
2017 — $141,320
2016 — $143,916
2015 — $142,874
2014 — $139,583
2013 — $127,147
OTHER NASSAU UNIONS
2018 — $153,705
2017 — $173,653
2016 — $171,795
2015 — $165,367
2014 — NA
2013 — $187,503
2018 — $189,112
2017 — $205,427
2016 — $191,831
2015 — $188,426
2014 — NA
2013 — $195,939
2018 — $103,615
2017 — $98,369
2016 — $90,836
2015 — $83,558
2014 — NA
2013 — $86,221
- Total Nassau Police overtime:
2018 — $54,147,653
2017 — $56,661,977
2016 — $73,989,489
2015 — $69,886,749
2014 — $68,102,133
2013 — $67,342,193
- Correction overtime
2018 — $24,231,962
2017 — $20,270,821
2016 — $15,545,731
2015 — $10,931,477
2014 — $14,877,388
2013 — $16,328,204
*Includes overtime, holiday pay and all other salary enhancements except termination pay.
Source: Nassau County Legislature Office of Budget Review; Suffolk County Legislature Office of Budget Review