New Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. got approval to hire a new class of 30 correction officers Tuesday to offset the loss of 30 officers to retirement or resignation over low pay since the last class was hired in September.
Chief Deputy County Executive Dennis M. Cohen, who turned down Toulon’s initial request for a new class late last month citing “inadequate appropriations” in the 2018 budget, reversed his position after a phone conversation, the new sheriff said.
Jason Elan, spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, confirmed that the county executive approved the new hiring. “We had conversations with Sheriff Toulon regarding the correction officer class,” he said. “The administration’s concern is that overtime has increased over the last couple of years, and we have a commitment by the sheriff to work together to reduce those overtime costs.”
Cohen’s reversal will avoid the possibility that Toulon, as a countywide elected official, could appeal directly to the county legislature to override the original refusal.
“I just signed off on two letters of retirement,” Toulon said. “And it seems like I’m getting three or four a week.”
Officials say there are 982 correction officer positions budgeted, but 82 are now vacant and Toulon warned that “short staffing” may continue to be a problem. He said he hopes to get the new class underway in three to four weeks.
The issue first came to light last week at the public safety committee, when Michael Sharkey, Toulon’s chief of staff, said, “We are having a big recruitment and retention problem. The civil service list is not lasting or producing the numbers it has in the past.” Officials said the civil service list, which in the past generated about 7,000 qualified applicants before the pay cuts, only resulted in 1,800 with the last list in 2016.
Officials say the 2015 correction officer contract created problems by lowering starting salaries by $4,781 for new officers to $30,000 a year. In addition, new officers also must pay a 15 percent share of health insurance, 3 percent of pension costs and have a salary schedule that takes 12 years to get to the top step of $78,690.
Sharkey said the department wants to do new hiring now to offset staff losses and to make “efficient use” of those remaining on the existing list, who have already been vetted in agility, physical and psychological exams. New correction trainees undergo a 13-week academy and six to eight weeks of field training afterward.
Without immediate hiring, officials said the new list due out shortly from the most recent test given last December is expected to generate less than 1,000 qualified applicants. But those candidates will still have to undergo further vetting, which means a new class could not start until around Thanksgiving and new correction officers would not complete training until March 2019.