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Suffolk police budget to surge this contract year

A Suffolk County police cruiser is shown pulling

A Suffolk County police cruiser is shown pulling over a vehicle on Sunrise Highway in Bay Shore. (Oct. 25, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

Rising costs of a multiyear contract between Suffolk County and its largest police union begin to kick in fully in 2014, with police department spending expected to grow by its largest amount in four years.

Suffolk projects that the police budget will increase to $448 million -- $19.4 million more than 2013's adopted total. Nearly $18 million of the spike comes from personnel costs.

Police spending had decreased every year since 2010. But under the pact between Suffolk and the Police Benevolent Association, which represents most department staff, costs are slated to rise by increasing amounts each year from 2014 and 2018.

Backers say the PBA contract, negotiated by County Executive Steve Bellone and adopted unanimously by the county legislature in October 2012, saved Suffolk $43 million upfront by withholding two years of retroactive pay increases to officers that a binding arbitration settlement may have mandated. For decades, the county relied on binding arbitration to settle police union contracts.

But the negotiated deal, covering 2011 to 2018, just delayed the steady wage increases for the PBA's roughly 1,540 veteran members. After they received 2.67 percent in raises last year, they'll get four different increases in base pay in 2014, totaling 5.53 percent by Dec. 1, contract records show.

It also will take new hires longer to reach the top salary step. But savings will take years to materialize fully, as all but 40 current PBA members were hired under the old pay scale.

Legislative budget analysts have predicted that the PBA contract could cost $269 million over the next five years -- with $87 million of the increase in 2018 alone. From 2003 to 2012, the Suffolk police budget grew by a total of $87 million.


Costs an issue

Even lawmakers who supported the PBA agreement last year acknowledged that its costs may force the county to increase its police district tax rate each year. For 2014, the increase is 2.34 percent, or $20 for the average homeowner.

"The other stuff is nice to say, but the reality is, just as we increased it this year, we'll have to do the same thing for '15, '16, '17, '18," said Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip). "I think we're going to be locked in."

However, Barraga said an independent arbitrator likely would not have made new police hires pay into their health care. The PBA negotiations were credited with securing health care contributions from all future county workers, a concession that also is in a draft contract agreement between Nassau County and its police officers union.

"Looking back, I still think it was the right call," Barraga said of his vote for the contract.

Under the PBA deal, top-step base pay for veteran union members will reach $117,676 in 2014, and $139,234 by the end of 2018, when the contract expires. Many officers make an additional 30 percent to 40 percent or more each year through overtime, holiday and night differential pay, so total compensation for average top-step officers could reach $159,000 this year and $188,000 in 2018.

Officers hired after the deal went into effect -- there have been those 40 so far, with another 60 planned for late this year -- will take 12 years, instead of six, to reach the top salary step. That could save an average of $17,515 per year per recruit compared with officers hired before 2013, officials said.

"The police district tax increases . . . will be far outweighed by the savings gained through the long-term and immediate concessions the county has realized," Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo said. "The deal has shown to be exactly what it was anticipated to be."


More affordable future

Aides to Bellone say that if Suffolk had relied on arbitration for a PBA contract, as previous administrations had, the raises would have been similar but there would have been no concessions on pay steps, health care and other issues.

"Everything has to be looked at in context," Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said. "Future officers are becoming more affordable, and that has never happened here."

Schneider noted that an arbitrator recently awarded Long Beach city police five years of back pay, and that the city had to borrow to pay the settlement. Raises to Suffolk police officers over the next five years will average 4.5 percent annually, compared with the 3.6 percent average of PBA arbitration awards from 2006-2010.

But Schneider said that when the two years of no pay increases are factored in, the average annual raises under the PBA deal, from 2011-2018, will be less than 3.5 percent.

"That's certainly not outside what the police department has historically gotten," Schneider said.

The PBA deal also has served as a framework for subsequent cop contracts. Suffolk lawmakers recently approved a mirror agreement for the police detectives union, with the same soon expected for the superior officers union.


Nassau deal in works

In Nassau, County Executive Edward Mangano and the Police Benevolent Association there have announced a tentative deal that would set a new salary scale for future hires. They also would be required for the first time to contribute to their health care, if they choose the most expensive plan. The deal -- which needs approval by the county's financial control board -- would also give current officers raises withheld since 2011, and would give them 3.75 percent annual base pay increases through 2017.

Supporters of Suffolk's PBA contract say that an improving local economy, helped by higher-than-expected sales tax revenue last year, makes increased police costs more bearable.

"We'll have increased expenses, but we're also expecting increased revenues," said Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville). "This agreement changed the game for negotiations for law enforcement contracts, not only in Suffolk but probably in Nassau and across the state."

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