Data obtained by Newsday show members of the police department in Nassau and Suffolk were the highest paid county workers last year. Newsday TV's Shari Einhorn reports.  Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

A Nassau County Police chief of patrol who was paid nearly $856,000 in salary and termination pay last year and a Suffolk County Police chief who took home almost $703,000 in salary and termination topped the list of highest-paid county workers on Long Island in 2021, according to data obtained by Newsday.

Of the top 100 earners in each county, 99 in Suffolk and 97 in Nassau were police officers, according to county comptroller records.

The termination packages can include hundreds of thousands of dollars in unused sick, vacation, holiday pay and other earnings guaranteed in collective bargaining agreements with public employee unions.

In Nassau, the highest-paid employee last year was former Chief of Patrol Kenneth Lack, a 31-year veteran who took home $855,644, data shows.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The two highest paid county workers in Nassau and Suffolk in 2021 were retiring police officers who took home salary and termination pay of $856,000 and $703,000 respectively.
  • Of the top 100 earners in each county, 99 in Suffolk and 97 in Nassau were police officers.
  • Termination packages can include hundreds of thousands of dollars in unused sick, vacation, holiday pay and other earnings guaranteed in collective bargaining agreements with public employee unions.

Lack, the police department's longtime public information officer, retired in November with termination pay of $550,401, primarily for unused sick and vacation time. His salary was $262,505 for the year, records show. 

In Suffolk, Chief of Police Robert Brown was the highest paid county employee — with $524,233 in termination pay and salary of $145,244, for a total of $702,922.

Brown retired in July 2021 after serving in the department for 35 years.

He was responsible for overseeing the police department's largest division with 1,700 officers.

The new data highlights the staying power of a long-running pattern in Nassau and Suffolk, in which workers retire or otherwise leave county service with large termination packages guaranteed in union contracts. 

In Suffolk, termination pay for 284 police officers and other department personnel rose to $46,258,100 last year, compared with $29,732,959 for 174 employees in 2020.

The increase was due largely to a rise in the number of officers who retired during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Marykate Guilfoyle, a spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

In Nassau, termination for 375 police officers and other department employees dropped to $29,162,722 in 2021, compared with $51,214,933 for 276 employees in 2020, records show.

Nassau County officials attributed the drop in total police termination pay to fewer retirements: 89 officers in 2021 compared with 180 officers in 2020.

Termination pay for 1,636 employees from across Suffolk County government was $66,058,134 last year, compared with $40,898,636 for 738 employees in 2020, according to comptroller data.

Termination for 1,282 Nassau County workers cost $41,357,093 in 2021, compared with $64,841,578 for 1,113 workers in 2020.

The size of the payouts, particularly for police, have prompted warnings from fiscal watchdog groups and some local county legislators that Nassau and Suffolk can't afford to sustain such big retirement packages long term.

The issue also has helped fuel a long-running debate over the political influence of law enforcement unions with county elected officials who approve their union contracts.

"This is a problem with the system, not necessarily the employees," Tim Hoefer, president and CEO of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit think tank in Albany that promotes free-market policies, told Newsday.

Elected officials who vote on approval of union contracts have an incentive to "make sure the unions like them, support them or at least don't work against them come reelection time," Hoefer said.

"Talk about special interest — government unions are among the most powerful in the state," he added. "Of course that has an impact on how contracts come out."

Police union leaders in both counties said the retirement benefits are justified, given that officers perform dangerous jobs and have significant responsibility.

Union leaders also stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented threats to officers' health and safety. 

In addressing Lack's 2021 payout, Rick Frassetti, president of Nassau's Superior Officers Association, which represents the highest-ranking county police officers, issued a statement saying Lack "gave a portion of his life to the people of Nassau County, and he deserves and is entitled to salary and benefits."

Frassetti continued: "After 31 years with the Nassau County Police Department and rising nine ranks to becoming one of the top leaders in the police department, Ken accrued many days which he was entitled to use but did not during many negotiated contracts." 

Tommy Shevlin, president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, the county's largest police union, said in a statement: "Nassau County Police risk their lives each and every time they report for duty. The unprecedented conditions through two-and-a-half years of COVID-19 created new threats to officers’ health, safety, and well-being, and their families, but still, Nassau police ensured this county is among the safest places to live in America.” 

Suffolk County Superior Officers Association president James Gruenfelder declined to comment for this story. Brown, the retired chief, is a Superior Officers Association member.

Newsday obtained the 2021 data for 26,521 full-time and part-time county employees in Nassau and Suffolk through a Freedom of Information Law request. The data is derived from federal Internal Revenue Service W-2 forms filed by county employees.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said "it's an open question whether it's fair or financially sustainable for any public employee to receive huge payouts for time earned in the distant past."

But Levy cautioned against counting a police officer's retirement payout in a particular year to make the case that law enforcement salaries are too high.

"Most people, especially in the suburbs, appreciate what their cops do for them and the difficulty of their jobs, but I think that around the country it is fairly unusual to see such large accrued benefits beyond pay," Levy told Newsday.

Average total pay in the Suffolk police department was $137,809.09 in 2021; in Nassau, it was $111,572.37.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said in a statement the county "is bound by collective bargaining agreements that were consummated prior to our tenure, and we will enter negotiations in the future with the responsibility to be cautious about how taxpayer dollars are spent and at the same time, fair to our workers."

Blakeman, a Republican, took office in January.

Kiana Abbady, an activist with the Long Island Progressive Coalition, which worked on police reform plans in both counties last year, said police payouts in Nassau and Suffolk counties are excessive.

"There are so many other services and resources that the community needs after dealing with two years of a global pandemic and now fighting inflation," Abbady said.

"There are resources and services provided by Nassau and Suffolk County agencies that if given the budget of the police department would be way more effective in preventing crime versus paying someone almost $1 million for unused vacation and sick time," she said.

Frassetti declined to respond directly to Abbady's comments.

But he said of the payouts to retiring police officers: “Instead of taking off and spending time with their families, they were working nights, holidays, weekends. This is built up time they were able to use that they didn’t use and contributed to their termination pay.” 

COUNTY TERMINATION PAY, 2021

County police departments* 

2021

Nassau: $29,162,722

Suffolk: $46,258,100

2020

Nassau: $51,214,933

Suffolk: $29,732,959

2019

Nassau: $35,744,591

Suffolk: $30,652,344

*includes police officers and other department employees

All county departments

2021

Nassau: $41,357,093

Suffolk: $66,058,134

2020

Nassau: $64,841,578

Suffolk: $40,898,636

2019

Nassau: $46,688,087

Suffolk: $41,479,128

Source: Nassau and Suffolk County comptroller offices

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME