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Suffolk payroll hits $1B with costly public safety contracts

Nassau Community College in Garden City. Nassau County's

Nassau Community College in Garden City. Nassau County's 2016 payroll includes $132 million for Nassau Community College. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Suffolk County payroll topped $1 billion for the first time in 2016 as costs rose significantly for public safety contracts with large pay raises in later years, records show.

Nassau County, where the payroll first exceeded $1 billion in 2014, spent $1.02 billion on 16,000 full- and part-time employees last year, but had a far smaller increase than Suffolk.

In Suffolk, total compensation for 12,700 full- and part-time employees rose by 5.3 percent to $1.018 billion over the prior year, according to payroll data obtained through the Freedom of Information Law. Increases for police employees, sheriff’s deputies and correction officers accounted for 90 percent of the $51.6 million increase.

It was the largest rise in payroll since at least 2011, when Suffolk began keeping track of the payroll in its current form.

Nassau County’s payroll increased by 2.4 percent in 2016, from $998 million in 2015, according to county data.

Nassau’s payroll included $132 million in Nassau Community College payroll. Suffolk County data did not include the $122 million in personnel expenses for the county community college.

The estimated 6,000 union employees in Nassau received a 3.5 percent raise in September 2016 after getting a 3.75 percent raise in 2015. Suffolk’s largest union, the 4,500-member Association of Municipal Employees, received 3 percent raise in July, while members of police unions received 5.63 percent raises in 2016.

The rising spending for personnel comes as Suffolk and Nassau struggle with chronic budget deficits.

Suffolk legislative budget officials estimated a $135 million deficit this year. The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state oversight board in control of the county’s finances, has projected that Nassau will end 2017 with a $106 million deficit.

Hoping for revenue upticks

Officials in both counties have raised fees and property taxes while identifying possible spending cuts to balance the books, hoping that upticks in sales tax revenue over the past year continue.

Each has a budget of about $2.9 billion.

Ken Girardin, an analyst with the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan conservative think tank headquartered in Albany, said that “in terms of high compensation for local law enforcement, Suffolk County has been near the epicenter.”

Girardin said that in Nassau, police costs have helped worsen the county’s “grim financial picture.” He cited the 13.4 percent total raises the roughly 1,700 active members of the county Police Benevolent Association received since 2014.

“Billion-dollar personnel costs in both counties should not only push officials to make some tough decisions here, but get citizens to demand action and realize this problem is one of the big reasons Long Island is so unaffordable,” said Doug Kellogg, communications director for Reclaim New York, a Manhattan-based government watchdog group chaired by Rebekah Mercer, a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump.

Noel DiGerolamo, president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, said county police are “working and earning every dollar that they’re paid. I believe that the residents of Suffolk County are getting their money’s worth with one of the best police departments in the nation.”

The W-2 information reviewed by Newsday covered unionized and exempt management employees, and includes salary, overtime, longevity and holiday pay and termination payouts. The data do not include the cost of health benefits and pensions.

Law enforcement spending was instrumental in driving up salary costs in both counties.

Large raises kick in later

In Suffolk, payroll costs for 3,767 police officers, detectives, supervisors and civilian employees rose by $29 million last year due to contractual raises, increased overtime spending and retirement payouts.

The agreements, which Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone negotiated beginning in 2012, in initial years generally held down salary levels, or provided small raises, and contained no retroactive pay.

But larger raises kick in toward the end of the contracts, which expire in 2018.

Members of the Suffolk PBA, and the superior officers and detectives unions, received 5.63 percent raises in 2016, and 6.11 percent raises in 2015. They will get 3.53 percent raises in 2017 and again in 2018. PBA members got no raises in 2011 and 2012 and smaller raises in 2013 and 2014. Detectives and superior officers got no retroactive raises from 2011 to 2013 and 5.96 percent raises in 2014.

Average pay for 1,556 active Suffolk police officers climbed to $162,910 in 2016 from $155,086 in 2015. The average for 449 members of the Superior Officers Assocation was $201,598 last year, and $201,035 for 338 detective union members.

In Suffolk, 666 active county employees — including 632 in the police department — made more than $200,000 last year, compared with 261 in 2015.

At the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, payroll costs rose by $17 million last year, due primarily to a new contract that gave correction officers a 10 percent raise.

The 874 sheriff’s corrections officers hadn’t received a pay raise since 2011. The deputy sheriff’s union, with 245 members, is the only union that has not negotiated a contract with Bellone. A tentative agreement is expected to be presented to the legislature this month.

The Bellone administration defended the law enforcement contracts. Officials said it was necessary to agree to large police raises in the later years of the contract, in order to get unions to back lower pay scales for new hires, to produce future savings.

Bellone administration officials said they had expected 2016 to be difficult due to the police union contracts and expected retirements.

“It was an anomaly of a year,” said Connie Corso, Suffolk’s budget director.

Bellone spokesman Jason Elan said cost-saving provisions in the police contracts have saved taxpayers $126 million, primarily through lower salaries for new hires and the lack of retroactive raises. Elan noted that the agreements require police officers to contribute a portion of their health care costs for the first time.

County officials said that under the 2017 county budget, payroll is expected to level out.

However, a report published last month by the legislature’s Budget Review Office warned that increases in payroll spending were likely to continue.

Compensation ‘to increase’

“The rate of growth has been accelerating over the last couple of years,” the report said. “Going forward, W-2 compensation will likely continue to increase year over year.”

Suffolk, which has cut 1,100 positions since Bellone took office, will not be able to reduce its workforce further “without dramatic cuts or elimination of services,” the report said.

The Suffolk police payroll was $486 million last year — 48 percent of total county payroll.

In Nassau, the police department payroll of $471 million last year accounted for 47 percent of county payroll.

Nassau Community College was second at $132 million — essentially unchanged from 2015 — followed by the Sheriff’s Office/Nassau Correctional Center at $111 million, a $9 million increase from 2015.

Suffolk has not included its community college in its payroll numbers since 2011 when the college sought more autonomy from the county. Personnel costs in 2016 for Suffolk Community College were $122 million.

Brian Nevin, a spokesman for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, declined to address Nassau’s payroll figures. But he credited county employees for helping deliver “budgetary surpluses” of $57.1 million in 2015 and $80 million in 2016.

NIFA chairman Adam Barsky has said Nassau did not end 2016 with a true surplus, noting that the county borrowed $60 million to pay tax refunds and $40 million for large court settlements.

“A good portion of this surplus was generated from borrowing,” Barsky said in February.

Nassau overtime costs

Nearly $106 million in total Nassau payroll costs was due to overtime, including a record $73.9 million from police employees, the data show.

The biggest 2016 overtime earner, a Nassau police officer with more than 16 years experience, brought in nearly $183,000 in overtime. A total of 25 officers or detectives made more than $100,000 in overtime last year; 12 of those employees earned more in overtime than in base salary.

Police officials attributed the high overtime in 2016 to the need to staff events such as the presidential debate at Hofstra University, rallies by presidential candidates and the Verizon employees strike.

Nassau PBA president James McDermott said that while a number of “unforeseen events” helped drive overtime in 2016, the work was necessary to ensure public safety.

“Cutting back on overtime will only put the public and police officers in danger,” he said.

Also, a report in January by the Nassau independent Office of Legislative Budget Review found that $3 million in overtime costs came from a 25 percent spike in sick days taken by police officers in 2016.

With Timothy Healy

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