The Suffolk Legislature, despite an abbreviated review, overwhelmingly approved new contracts with police and other county workers Tuesday night as well as a deal to have employees for the first time share in health insurance costs.
Lawmakers voted for the emergency resolutions after aides to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, legislative budget analysts and union leaders answered lawmakers' questions for more than two hours.
Dennis Cohen, Bellone’s chief deputy, said fast action is crucial because “The quicker we can start … the quicker we get savings,” adding “Every month we wait is $3 million.”
Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Oakdale) praised the agreements, despite the pain it causes some county workers. “I understand some employees are upset about having to contribute to this,” he said “The contribution is still just a fraction of the cost.” While employees may “feel the sting of it … it sets the trajectory of benefits level.”
However, Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the legislature should have taken more time to review details of the deals. “The PBA played the county executive like a fiddle,” he said. “I’m not going to vote on this now because I don’t know enough about it.”
Legislative budget analysts lowered the estimated savings from the health care cost-sharing to a range of $143 million to $188 million, rather than $195.6 million forecast by the executive, based on unresolved further concessions in the contract’s later years.
Legislative analysts also projected a higher five-year cost of $127.5 million for the new Association of Municipal Employees contract, compared to executive’s estimate of $108 million. The pact gives AME members increases totaling 12 percent from 2017 to 2024.
Bellone aides had estimated the new contract for 1,700 Police Benevolent Association officers, in which raises average 1.85 percent a year, will add $84.4 million in new costs. But legislative analysts say the new cost will actually be a total of $78.5 million.
But the lawmakers' analysts also found that the cost of bringing new recruits hired after 2013 to the $155,687 top step, the same as long-serving officers, will be $250,000 more, compared to the contract in place from 2012 to 2018 and will cost $44,000 per recruit more each year thereafter.
Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman said that while the “big elephant in the room” is getting rid of the two-tier system, few other police departments in the country had that pay structure. He said “one of the most significant parts of this deal” is adding more workdays for PBA members, including by reducing the number of sick days and requiring new recruits to work an additional 14.5 and 17 days in their first two years on the force. He estimates these additional days will help reduce overtime pay by about 60 percent.
The health agreement calls for employees to pay 2 percent of their salary for health coverage, a contribution that will range from $1,500 annually to $3,750 that will increase .1 percent annually until it reached 2.5 percent which will be capped at $4,000 at the end of the contract.
Some workers were unhappy. “We have basically given away everything I have worked for in the past 16 years,” Joan Neiman, one county worker said. “Our contract is not worth the piece of paper it’s written on and you really sold us down the river.”
But Geoff Mascaro, an AME unit president in public works, conceded the cost sharing is unpopular. “I don’t want to pay for coverage, none of us do. The alternatives raised are much worse,” he said. “It’s essential we make changes to modernize the system.”