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Steve Bellone plans to nearly triple Suffolk police class size

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone adresses legislators

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone adresses legislators and constituents at the Suffolk County Legislative building in Hauppauge during the annual State of the County address. Credit: Johnny Milano / Johnny Milano

County Executive Steve Bellone said he will nearly triple the size of this year’s Suffolk police class to 175, the second largest in the department’s history, to offset what officials expect to be a multiyear spike in retirement over the next three years.

Plans for the new class, originally planned for 60 in the 2016 budget, will increase the cost from $1.5 million to $4 million this year, and an additional $12 million next year. Officials say the new class would start in the fall and be ready by next summer. Up to now, Suffolk’s largest class was 213 officers in 1989.

The 2016 budget had estimated there would be 136 retirements this year, up from 90 in 2015 and a historic average of about 80 annually. While police have slightly lowered this year’s projected retirements to 128, Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the forecast of a one-year spike has expanded to about 120 retirements for both 2017 and 2018 as well.

The number of sworn police staff now stands at 2,390, which is 392 below its authorized strength of 2,782. Officials say that staffing shortage has driven up overtime costs to $45.3 million in the past year.

Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said that he expects the new hiring to help drive down overtime costs, and that it may spur additional retirements once the need for overtime is reduced. He added that a reduced need for overtime also will help increase police productivity.

Officials also said extra hiring will create the potential for a more diverse police class because more minority applicants scored in the highest tier in last year’s competitive civil service test than ever before.

Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), said he was concerned about how to pay for the new hires.

“I don’t know where they are going to get the money. This is literally the first I’m hearing about it,” said Trotta, himself a retired police detective. He added that the hiring “may be a double-edged sword” that will force older officers to retire once the overtime dries up.

Bellone budget aides say they expected to pay this year’s cost for the new class with savings from a reduction in separation pay for retiring officers, as well as cost savings from gas and utilities because of lower oil costs. They also say the increased hiring will allow the county to take advantage of the dual salary schedule in the current police contract that put new officers on a separate and lower pay scale than more veteran top step officers.

Noel DiGerolamo, Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president, said he was pleased with Bellone’s action, but added he hopes “he continues along the path by backing up this class with another to deal with significant retirements in the future.” He added it is an optimum time for hiring so that “more senior, seasoned officers can pass along their decades of experience to a new generation of recruits.”

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, Republican caucus leader, said he backs the new hiring because there is a “desperate need for more officers” to speed up response, fight drugs and to take advantage of the new contract.

“We can pay for it by reducing the number of patronage jobs,” he said. “We don’t need another assistant police commissioner for public relations,” referring to Bellone spokesman Justin Meyers’ new $140,000-a-year police post.

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