Suffolk lawmakers from both political parties are bracing for repercussions from County Executive Steve Bellone's decision to ignore a signed agreement that would keep sheriff's deputies on highway patrols for another five years.
Bellone recently announced that Suffolk police officers would soon reclaim jurisdiction over the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway as part of a pending 10-year contract with the Police Benevolent Association. Former County Executive Steve Levy had assigned the roadways to the county Sheriff's Office in 2008, saying it would save money, as deputies earn less than officers.
In returning the patrols to police, Bellone, a Democrat, dismissed a September 2011 memorandum of agreement that Levy, a Republican, reached with the deputies' union. It pledged that if deputies deferred half of their three years of owed retroactive pay raises, through 2015, the county couldn't replace them with other sworn officers on any job function through 2017.
The move to set aside that pact, while probably legal, some legislators said, may still set a worrisome precedent.
"This is bigger than any one contract or agreement," said Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), who, regardless, supports the larger PBA deal. "It's about the credibility of the county and unions being able to talk to each other, and feeling, if they have a binding agreement, it should be honored, irrespective of who comes into office at a later date."
"Does that mean when a new government comes on board, all the agreements of the previous government are thrown aside?" asked Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip). "It's ridiculous. This should be about the position, not the individual."
Attorney: Past deal not OK'd
But County Attorney Dennis Cohen said the "memorandum of agreement" was invalid because it involved appropriation of money -- and wasn't approved by the legislature as county charter requires. The appropriation stems from Suffolk ultimately having to pay more than the $4 million in remaining awarded retroactive raises that deputies deferred, since the figure must be based on their salaries at the end of 2013, not 2011, when the deal was reached.
Administration officials also say they believe a county executive generally can't tie the hands of his or her successor, unless it involves full collective bargaining agreements.
"This promised them something seven years into the future," Cohen said.
The county says it will negotiate for full payment of deputies' deferred arbitration award, but still plans to turn over the highways to police upon approval of the PBA deal. The deputies' union has suggested it will fight the decision, but as of Friday, had yet to file a grievance or lawsuit.
PBA president Noel DiGerolamo backed Bellone's reading of the pact between Levy and the deputies, noting that the county legislature approved his union's 2009 agreement to defer $12 million in raises as part of a resolution that set arbitration terms. He said officers' return to highways was a critical part of the new contract, which would provide no retroactive raises but includes annual increases of 3 percent or more from 2014 through 2020.
"The deal would not have proceeded forward absent that piece," DiGerolamo said, adding that the contract also includes the waiver of the $12 million deferred arbitration award. "It's part of the cumulative package that contains our concessions."
Sheriff 'a little surprised'
Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, who also signed the deputies' union deal with Levy, said he was "a little surprised" Bellone has moved to invalidate it. He declined further comment because he'd yet to consult with the county attorney's office.
"The county's original intent was, in tough budget times, to hold on to $4 million in retro pay owed to deputies, and in return, they'd have job protection through 2017," DeMarco said.
Levy said it sounded as if Bellone is "straining to come up with a justification" to set aside the 2011 agreement. Technically, he added, the legislature approved the $4 million in savings from deputies' pay deferral as part of the 2012 budget.
Other lawmakers who support Bellone's deal with the PBA say Levy's pact with deputies may still be the cause of some headaches going forward.
"I think it's a problem for the county," said Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches).
But Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), chairman of the government operations and personnel committee, said he believes Bellone is within his legal rights to return the highways to police -- though he expects deputies to dispute it.
Calarco noted it was the police, not deputies, who first had the duty taken from them.
"This was a job function they'd always performed, and to remove it from their jurisdiction and unilaterally transfer it to another county bargaining union was problematic for them and many legislators," Calarco said. "It pitted our employees against each other, and that's not a healthy thing."