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Delay in Suffolk police recruit class sparks concerns

Suffolk lawmakers are questioning County Executive Steve Bellone over a delay in the start of a new police recruit class -- something he previously promised by September.

At Thursday's Public Safety Committee meeting, legislators said they still haven't heard from the administration on when the class will begin or how large it will be, despite requesting details in a Sept. 11 letter. The 2013 budget included funding for 75 recruits meant to bolster staffing reduced by last year's early retirement program.

There are now 2,354 sworn-police positions, down 79 from the start of the year. Lawmakers said there's further urgency to start a class soon -- and not in late December, as in past years -- because it would allow the officers to be street-ready by next summer, saving $1 million next year in overtime.

"We do need more officers," said Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), the Public Safety Committee chairwoman. "But we at least want to get an answer."

The 2013 Suffolk police recruit class had been touted as the first that would enter under a lower salary scale for new hires negotiated in the eight-year contract reached last year between Bellone and the police union. New hires would need 12 years to reach the top step, rather than the current five years.

Top-step base salary for officers hired under the new system is estimated to be about $30,000 less than that of their veteran counterparts. Officials have said each new officer will save the county $128,000 in pay over the life of the contract.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Thursday the administration still plans to introduce a new class before year's end but is still meeting with police leaders to determine its size and start date. Bellone's 2014 budget seeks state approval to transfer 36 park police officers to the Suffolk PD, which would allow a new class size smaller than 75.

"We're on the same page in understanding we need optimal staffing for summer of '14," said Schneider, noting that even with reduced ranks, crime is down 16 percent since 2011.

But Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said lawmakers were misled, since they had approved a 2013 budget with a police district tax hike believing it would pay for the recruit class to start by September. "It's a bait and switch," Kennedy said.

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