Suffolk County police officers with six years on the job will make $108,608 annually - the first time a contract puts their pay into six figures - under a new arbitration award that leapfrogs them ahead of Nassau's top salaried cops.
The $18.52-million pay and benefit package gives the police union 3.5 percent in yearly pay hikes from 2008 to 2010, and lowers starting pay for newly hired officers to $42,000 a year, a drop of $16,000.
Because the officers have not had a raise for three years since the old contract expired, their pay will rise 10.9 percent when they receive their first checks from the award in late May. A new contract with the police union will have to be negotiated after 2010.
County Executive Steve Levy called the award "totally unjustified," given the "lofty salaries" officers now earn with overtime and other benefits that can escalate their compensation to as high as $150,000 a year. Levy also called for an end to binding arbitration because it is "destroying the taxpayers' ability to live in this state."
Jeff Frayler, Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president, said, "There's a little bit of pain on both sides, but we think the arbitrator did a fair job."
Nassau County broke the $100,000 ceiling with $103,973 annually in 2009. Still, county and union officials say the PBA salaries, while among the highest in the country, lag behind a number of smaller Long Island municipalities.
In making the ruling, arbitrator Arthur Riegel said he considered both salaries in comparable communities and the county's ability to pay.
"I am persuaded the county is facing a serious fiscal crisis at this time," he said, but he added, "Despite the severity of the economic recession. . . . The county does have the ability to pay for smaller increases."
In contract talks, the union sought a 6 percent pay hike, while the county wanted a wage freeze.
But Jeff Tempera, the county's labor relations director, blasted as "unconscionable" the arbitrator's doubling of stipends of five top PBA union officials to make up for overtime they do not get because they work full-time on union business.
"To require . . . taxpayers to pay them for overtime they have not worked . . . is wrong," he said.
Some officers who have not yet reached the six-year top step will come out better, seeing pay raises as 26 percent.
Back pay of $12 million - owned as part of the total $18.5 million cost of the package - will be deferred under an earlier agreement and will be paid out as officers retire. This amount represents $7,164 per officer.
Riegel said lower salaries for new officers could save as much as $1.5 million, depending on the size of the class.
The county is planning on bringing in a new police class in June. Levy has authorized a class of 70; the county legislature has budgeted for a class of 200.
Presiding Officer William Lindsay hoped the lower salaries might lead Levy to do more hiring. "It only saves money, if you hire," he said. "It certainly adds another incentive."
Lindsay added contracts only end up in arbitration when officials do not want to "take responsibility" for making a deal. "If you palm it off to a third party, you get what they give you," he said.