Town of Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan poses next to two...

Town of Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan poses next to two cars used by town employees in Islip. (Mar. 9, 2010) Credit: John Dunn

Never has a commute been so expensive.

Islip Town officials say they're on the hook for more than $2.4 million after a state board ruled it must give back cars taken from a group of union employees and compensate them -- with interest -- for their commuting costs over the past three years.

The decision, by the Public Employment Relations Board, comes after the town appealed an administrative judge's March 2010 ruling that Islip violated state labor law when it failed to negotiate with the union before ordering 45 union employees to give up town-owned take-home vehicles in 2008.

Supervisor Phil Nolan said Thursday that the town would appeal the latest decision to State Supreme Court, a move legal experts said was highly unlikely to succeed.

"I believe we're on the right side," Nolan said. "We remain hopeful the right side of this issue wins out for the public and this travesty will cease."

Attorney Marty Glennon, of Melville, who represented Teamsters Local 237, said the union remains willing to discuss a settlement. "We understand the burden on the town," he said.

The union argued successfully that the town's action constituted a unilateral change to an 18-year-old "past practice" of assigning vehicles to employees, who had come to expect the practice would continue.

Affected employees -- 32 of the initial 45 are still employed -- include groundskeepers, inspectors, a custodial worker, labor crew leaders, a systems programmer, a real property appraiser, a recreation program coordinator and a clerk.

"We aren't arguing against them having cars for work purposes, just not having them to go to and from work to home," said Nolan, who is running for re-election in November on a platform of fiscal prudence.

The employee relations board decision on May 27 read, "The Town . . . cannot change the past practice absent agreement with Local 237," adding the town "did not even seek such an agreement."

It ordered Islip to restore vehicle assignments for commuting between home and work to those union employees who enjoyed the benefit before April 4, 2008. It also ordered the town "make whole" employees' extra expenses incurred as a result of the cars' "unilateral withdrawal . . . together with interest at the maximum legal rate."

Town director of labor relations Robert Finnegan said to replace vehicles for the 32 employees could cost more than $800,000, while an estimate of compensation for gas came to more than $1.6 million. "That doesn't even take account of the interest payments or the [retroactive] costs of maintenance, repairs and insurance the board has also ordered," he said.

Angela Cornell, director of Cornell University's labor law clinic, said appealing the decision "would not be a wise expenditure of public funds . . . Given the basic principle at stake, the obligation to negotiate, a decision to appeal doesn't appear prudent."

Nolan, who said he's shrunk the town fleet from 640 to 465 since 2008, said he was elected to streamline government and "get rid of these kinds of abuses of the public treasury."

"In the 1980s gas was less than $2 a gallon," he said. "This decision doesn't move with the times, we'll fight it."

John Burns, Long Island director of Teamsters Local 237, noting his members also are taxpayers, said: "The union is mindful of economic circumstances . . . The union didn't create this problem, but we're willing to work to resolve it."

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