Nearly 1,000 Suffolk County employees made more than $200,000 last year — 30 percent over 2016 — as contracts for police and other law enforcement officers drove up pay.
Suffolk in 2017 had 966 employees who earned more than $200,000 in salary, overtime and other monetary benefits, compared with 745 in 2016, 328 in 2015 and 142 in 2014. The county had 12,678 full- and part-time workers last year.
Ninety percent of the over-$200,000 earners last year were police officers, detectives and supervisors, according to W-2 data obtained by Newsday.
In Nassau, 93 percent of the 646 employees who made more than $200,000 in 2017 were police, according to county W-2 data.
Nassau had 680 such employees in 2016, 488 in 2015 and 449 in 2014, when Nassau’s financial control board lifted a salary freeze for union workers that had been in place since 2011. The county had 11,089 full- and part-time workers last year.
A portion of the $200,000-plus earners in both counties were retirees who last year received six-figure payouts for unused sick and vacation time. Twenty-three such employees — 17 in Nassau and six in Suffolk — received total compensation of more than $500,000, when unused time was factored in.
In Suffolk, 95 of the $200,000-plus earners — 93 of them police — were people who retired in 2017 with payouts of up to $597,946 each for unused sick and vacation pay. In Nassau, 188 were retirees who received termination pay of as much as $555,842, and 174 were police.
Ken Girardin, an analyst with the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany think tank that advocates for lower taxes and restrained government spending, said, “These higher pay figures reflect bad decisions by both local officials, who signed off on costly deals with the PBA, and state officials, who refuse to fix the state’s binding arbitration system that’s rigged” to benefit unions.
Many municipal officials have complained that the state arbitration system often favors unions by not capping annual salary awards and inadequately weighing the government’s ability to afford raises.
Noel DiGerolamo, Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president and head of a police union independent expenditure campaign committee, defended police salaries, noting the danger of the work and the requirements that police staff weekends and holidays to protect the public.
PBA leader: ‘No apology’
“I make no apology for my members earning what they do and receiving the compensation that they do,” he said. “Police officers are tasked with working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; weekends, holidays, overnight shifts . . . yet are vilified, for earning a salary commensurate to such sacrifice.”
The new salary data became available as budget gaps plagued Suffolk and Nassau, where employee salaries constitute about a third of each county’s budget.
Suffolk has a projected $150 million structural budget deficit — the difference between recurring revenue and expenditures — according to a report by the Suffolk County Legislature’s nonpartisan Budget Review Office.
Nassau had a structural deficit of about $57.6 million in 2017, according to a county comptroller report last August.
Police unions are major political forces in both counties, helping to elect many of the officials who negotiate and vote on their contracts.
Suffolk police unions have spent $4 million on local races since 2011, when they formed an independent expenditure committee, the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation, according to state campaign finance records. In 2011, for instance, the foundation spent $547,000, primarily to help Democrat Steve Bellone in his successful campaign for county executive.
Separate from the foundation, Suffolk police union political action committees, as well as PACs for correction officers and deputy sheriffs, have given Bellone more than $139,327 directly since 2011, campaign records show.
Bellone has negotiated a series of long-term contracts with law enforcement unions since 2012 that granted raises totaling 28 percent to police officers, detectives and superior officers through 2018.
Lower scale for new hires
In exchange, the unions agreed to a lower pay scale for new hires and no retroactive pay raises. The Suffolk legislature approved the contracts overwhelmingly.
Bellone said it was a “challenge” to negotiate contracts under state law, which allows disputes to go to an arbitrator.
“We have to strike the right balance between doing everything we can to protect taxpayers and being fair to the men and women who put their lives on the line every day in our communities,” Bellone said in an interview. “Striking that balance under a state mandatory arbitration system is always a challenge.”
Bellone declined to comment about the number of $200,000-plus earners, or say whether he believed law enforcement pay was fair or excessive. But he noted that some police costs have begun to decline, such as the average pay for PBA members and corrections officers, as new officers replace retiring veterans.
“We’re seeing benefits now of the newer lower paid officers coming in — certainly that was the whole idea,” Bellone said. Bellone and the police unions were able to agree on the current eight-year contracts without binding arbitration — the first time that had happened in decades.
Bellone takes less, he says
Bellone also noted that while he is entitled to a $224,125 annual salary, he voluntarily takes less money. The $187,125 he collected in 2017 made him the 1,380th-highest-paid Suffolk employee, payroll records show.
Nassau law enforcement unions have no comparable independent expenditure committee. But since 2011, through their political action committees, Nassau unions representing detectives, police officers, supervisors and correction officers have contributed nearly $350,000 to Democratic and Republican candidates for Nassau County Legislature, campaign finance records show.
The law enforcement unions also gave more than $128,050 to former Republican state Sen. Jack Martins in his unsuccessful bid last year for Nassau County executive.
The unions, all of which endorsed Martins, contributed about $17,000 to Democratic County Executive Laura Curran’s two campaign committees last year, and $39,800 in 2017 to Friends of Ed Mangano, the former Republican county executive, according to records.
Rising pay for law enforcement officers helped drive up the number of $200,000 earners in Suffolk and Nassau, officials said.
“I think the rising cost of law enforcement in Suffolk County has become a huge challenge for us, fiscally,” said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), minority leader, who voted for the contract but said savings promised by the Bellone administration never materialized.
Suffolk County and the Police Benevolent Association, the largest police union with about 1,800 members, are in negotiations for a new contract.
Concern in Nassau
Nassau officials expressed concern about the number of employees with large salaries and payouts.
The county’s 7,000 full-time unionized employees still are working under the terms of their previous contracts, which expired Dec. 31. Curran took office the next day, vowing to negotiate contracts that are fair to county employees and taxpayers.
She is expected to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements with the five major public employee unions during her four-year term.
“The number of employees with compensation over $200,000 is a growing concern,” said Curran spokesman Michael Martino. “We need to reduce overtime and pension costs by eliminating costly and inefficient work rules.”
Overtime pushed many salaries higher, Martino said. Employees with base salaries of $200,000 “remained fairly constant and represent a small cadre of qualified and experienced professionals that Nassau County depends on for delivery of county services.”
Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, or NIFA, the county’s third-party financial control board, also said rules governing overtime and mandatory positions filled — known as minimum manning clauses — do not provide flexibility to control escalating personnel costs.
“Overtime is a principal driver of high compensation in Nassau County,” Barsky said. “The onerous and restrictive nature of the county’s collective bargaining agreements constrains department heads from more effectively managing overtime costs. This must be addressed.”
In 2014, NIFA lifted a countywide wage freeze it had imposed in 2011. The control board has the ability to freeze wages again and has the authority to approve or reject agreements between the county and its unions.
Nassau PBA president James McDermott and Nassau Superior Officers Association president Kevin Black declined to comment for this story. The other law enforcement unions did not respond to requests for comment.
The median household income in Suffolk in 2016 was $90,128 and $102,044 in Nassau, according to the latest U.S. Census data available.