The $200,000-a-year club for Nassau and Suffolk County workers is growing.
The number of county government employees on Long Island who earned more than $200,000 spiked last year, rising 13% in Nassau and 26% in Suffolk, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Law from the Nassau and Suffolk County comptrollers and analyzed by Newsday.
Police made up nearly 90% of Nassau workers who made more than $200,000 last year, and 86% of such workers in Suffolk.
What to know
- The number of county employees who earned more than $200,000 in 2020 jumped by more than 13% in Nassau and 26% in Suffolk, payroll data obtained by Newsday shows.
- The salary levels were largely attributable to county police pay.
- Large termination packages for police who retired in 2020 contributed significantly to police pay levels.
The group of employees making more than $400,000 also is growing. In 2020, they numbered 85 in Nassau, compared with 47 in 2019; in Suffolk, they numbered 42, compared with 30 in 2019.
Tim Hoefer, president and CEO of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit think tank in Albany that promotes free-market principles, noted the rising spending on pay for county workers comes as many residents continue to deal with job losses and other pandemic fallout.
"It still makes my eyebrows go up when we're talking about averages of $100,000" for county workers, Hoefer said. "So when we start talking about lots of people bringing home $200,000, it's incredible to me."
The median household income in Nassau County is $116,000 and about $101,000 in Suffolk, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Termination packages, including compensation for unused sick, holiday and vacation time helped drive the increase in $200,000-plus earners — with 260 police officers who retired in 2020 each receiving termination pay ranging from $100,000 to $500,000, the county records show.
Of the 100 top-paid employees in Suffolk County last year, all were in law enforcement, and 79 — all county police officers except for one correction supervisor in the sheriff's office — received total termination pay of $24.5 million. That accounted for 73% of their total pay of $33 million, according to county comptroller data.
In Nassau, all the top 100 earners were county police officers, and all had termination pay that totaled $33.4 million — or 69% of their total pay of $47.9 million.
The accrued pay is guaranteed under union contracts.
Frederick Brewington, a Garden City-based civil rights attorney who helped lead police reform efforts this year in both Nassau and Suffolk, said police salaries "need to be examined very closely."
Brewington continued: "There is a need for accountability when we see these exorbitant salaries — when we see numbers well above $200,000 — it is something all taxpayers need to examine."
County administrations and unions defend employee pay levels.
"Since the very beginning of the pandemic, our dedicated front line workers, which encompass a large majority of the employees listed, have worked tirelessly, around the clock, protecting residents and navigating uncharted territories," Nassau County spokesperson Christine Geed said.
"They’ve gone far above to ensure the protection and safety of our residents," Geed said.
Officials in Nassau County Executive Laura Curran's administration also note the union contracts were negotiated under previous county administrations.
"We live in an extremely high cost of living area," Suffolk PBA President Noel DiGerolamo said. "My membership is tasked with doing extremely dangerous work. Their shift work, their exposure, the sacrifice of their family life. That all takes a toll and needs to be taken into account."
The payroll data details compensation in 2020 for 12,359 county workers in Suffolk and 14,750 in Nassau.
The pay data is derived from Internal Revenue Service W-2 forms filed by county employees for 2020.
The 2020 W-2 forms for Nassau employees reported eight days of pay from 2019 due to the payroll calendar, making 2020 compensation slightly higher than usual. All pay in Suffolk was earned in calendar year 2020.
In Suffolk, there were 1,496 county workers whose pay totaled more than $200,000 last year, compared with 1,189 in 2019.
In Nassau, 735 county workers earned that much in 2020, compared with 646 in 2019.
The rise in the number of county workers making more than $200,000 last year is part of a yearslong trend.
The size of the group has doubled in Suffolk since 2016, when 745 county workers made more than $200,000.
In Nassau, the number of $200,000-plus earners has grown by 8% since 2016, when 680 workers made that much, according to county payroll records.
It was unclear why the $200,000-plus cohort grew at a faster rate in Suffolk than in Nassau.
But Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone blamed the county's high payroll costs on the need to reach contract agreements with police unions.
If no agreement is reached, the contract must go to binding arbitration, which can result in more generous terms for workers than municipalities want.
In Suffolk, the number of employees making $200,000 and up rose from 328 in 2015 to 745 in 2016, or 127%, comptroller records show. In 2016, police unions received a raise of 5.63% under contracts that had provided minimal raises between 2012 and 2014, but granted larger increases from 2015 to 2018.
"While our most recent public sector union contracts have had the lowest percentage salary increases in decades, we are still constrained by the State mandatory arbitration process," Bellone said in a statement.
The increase in the number of highly paid workers last year came as Bellone and Curran, both Democrats, struggled with large budget deficits stemming from a drop in sales tax revenues during the coronavirus pandemic.
In October, Bellone proposed $75 million in staffing and service cuts in the 2021 budget.
Curran last year ordered across-the-board spending cuts and in January refinanced up to $1.4 billion in county debt to save $435 million over two years.
Federal pandemic aid helped plug the county budget holes.
Bellone rescinded his proposed cuts after President Joe Biden signed his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which will provide Suffolk County government with $283 million, according to estimates by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The money Nassau will get about from the American Rescue Plan — some $398 million — will be placed in a separate fund for pandemic-related expenses, including personnel costs.
Release of the new county payroll data also comes as Nassau and Suffolk are examining policing practices and police department spending allocations as they implement police reform plans that have been accepted by New York State.
Last June, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered municipal police departments statewide to examine policies on use of force, crowd management, anti-bias training and citizen complaints or risk the loss of state funds.
According to the Nassau and Suffolk payroll data, the highest-paid county worker on Long Island last year was former Nassau Chief of Detectives Neil J. Delargy, who retired in August after 33 years in the county police department.
His total pay of $740,182 in 2020 included more than $507,000 in termination pay and more than $41,000 in overtime and holiday pay, on top of his regular pay of more than $168,000.
Delargy declined to comment, according to Nassau police spokesman Lt. Richard LeBrun.
Suffolk's highest earner in 2020 was former Assistant Police Chief Robert Oswald, who was paid more than $680,000, county data shows.
Oswald, who retired last July after 40 years on the county police force, received total compensation that included more than $500,000 in termination pay and approximately $30,000 in longevity and overtime pay.
Oswald could not be reached for comment. A representative for his union, the Superior Officers Association, did not respond to a request for comment.
Law enforcement union leaders point to overtime as the driving factor in members' total compensation. Individual officers are working more hours as members have retired, the union heads say.
DiGerolamo said his active-duty members can earn $200,000 or more annually only if they work significant overtime.
The starting salary for entry-level officers is $42,000, and it takes 12 years to reach the top salary step, he said.
Base pay for top-step officers in Suffolk was $142,922 in 2020, according to a projection by the Suffolk County Legislature's Budget Review Office that Newsday obtained.
In defending police salaries, Nassau PBA president James McDermott noted the "immeasurable sacrifice" of police officers who ensure "the priceless safety of our families and neighborhoods."
McDermott said, "over the past year, our county has faced unprecedented threats to public health and safety, requiring many police officers to complete extraordinary overtime, consistent with the needs of the department."
But Brewington said, "audits of police overtime are well overdue in both counties."
In Suffolk, some 1,450 county workers whose pay totaled more than $200,000 last year made overtime totaling $50.5 million in 2020, data shows. Overtime pay ranged from $16 to $199,709.
In Nassau, 712 of the county's $200,000-plus earners received overtime pay totaling $28.9 million in 2020. The highest overtime payout was $150,450 and the lowest was $6.99.
Jerry Laricchiuta, Long Island regional president of the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents 8,000 Nassau County employees, including clerks and hospital workers, said he had no issue with police department salaries.
"Police make more money for a reason. I think their salaries are justified," Laricchiuta said.
But police overtime has been "a quagmire" in Nassau and Suffolk for decades, Laricchiuta said.
"It's the age old question: Is it less expensive to hire more officers or to continue to pay the overtime? I don't know the answer," he said.
With Matt Clark