When Hempstead Town Supervisor Donald X. Clavin Jr. needed guidance on how to give raises to himself and his elected colleagues, the Republican said he looked to Tom Suozzi.
While Suozzi was Nassau executive, the County Legislature enacted raises for countywide elected officials that would automatically increase annually for inflation.
Hempstead officials, in a first for towns and cities in Nassau County, are proposing to make salary increases automatic for those officials, based on inflation with a cap of 4.9%, and avoid having the board pass a local law every few years.
“We're grateful to Tom Suozzi,” Clavin said Wednesday. “We thought it was a great lead to follow.”
WHAT TO KNOW
If Hempstead passes the local law, elected officials would get raises every Jan. 1.
Raises would be based on the urban consumer price index.
Raises would be capped at 4.9%.
The town board also is proposing to give nine elected officials raises in 2024, ranging from 9.3% to 14%.
The town board has set a Tuesday hearing on the proposal, which would:
- Increase Clavin’s annual salary from $160,000 to $175,000;
- Increase town board members’ salaries from $71,000 to $78,000;
- Increase the town clerk’s salary from $106,500 to $121,500.
The salary for the receiver of taxes would go up to $145,000, from $130,000.
With the exception of the tax receiver, all the elected officials’ salaries are set in the town code and require a law to be passed to change them. The tax receiver’s salary was set in the town budget.
The supervisor's and board members' salaries last increased in 2013.
The town clerk's salary last increased in 2009.
The proposal calls the mechanism of annual automatic raises a cost of living adjustment, or COLA. It would be calculated based on the consumer price index for urban consumers published by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Nassau's pay hikes for county staff, legislators
In 2007, a bipartisan county panel led by the late Democratic Legis. Judy Jacobs recommended raises for countywide positions, including for then-County Executive Suozzi, as well as for legislators all of those whose salaries hadn't changed since 1996. The Nassau Legislature adopted raises for countywide offices, which included an automatic annual cost of living increase based on inflation capped at 4%, but it did not include raises for legislators.
Suozzi got a salary hike the following year and the inflation adjustment kicked in in 2009.
The Nassau Legislature adopted automatic raises for legislators pegged to inflation in 2015, but delayed those raises until after the 2017 election.
'Excluding the voting taxpayers from having a say'
Bill Biamonte, chief of staff to county Democratic legislators, said Thursday the legislature handled the raises appropriately because it gave voters an opportunity to vote them out before the raises kicked in.
“The Town of Hempstead can be criticized for enacting these raises to be in effect immediately in contrast to how Nassau County went about it,” Biamonte said, referring to the legislature’s 2015 action. “They are therefore excluding the voting taxpayers from having any say in what's going on, whereas the legislature enacted and then waited almost two-and-a-half years after they ran again” for the raises to take effect.
No town or city in Nassau County gives automatic raises based on inflation, but in Suffolk the Town of Islip has done so since 2017.
On Oct. 3, the Hempstead Town Board published a legal notice stating the salaries of elected officials in the preliminary 2024 budget with no change. The budget was adopted and no mention of raises was made until after the Nov. 7 election that saw incumbent Republicans sweep the Hempstead Town races.
“It wasn't announced before the election because we really didn't have a discussion of it until after the election,” Clavin said Wednesday.
State law generally prohibits town boards from raising their salaries after the preliminary budget has been submitted, but Hempstead’s approach would utilize an exception, said Huntington Station-based attorney Paul Sabatino, a former counsel to the Suffolk County Legislature.
Town board can enact raises by adopting a local law
Under New York State “home rule” law, the town board can enact raises by adopting a law, Sabatino said, but such a law would be subject to a permissive referendum. The town's proposed law doesn't include language about a permissive referendum that Sabatino said is required under state law.
A permissive referendum allows voters to gather signatures and put an issue on the ballot to be decided by the voters. Sabatino said the town can amend the proposal to include referendum language, but it would push back adoption.
“If you make a substantial change like that, you have to re-notice it,” Sabatino said. “It would cause a little bit of a delay.”
The town may need to make another amendment to its proposal as the language of the law is unclear whether COLA will begin in 2024 or 2025. The proposed law, which includes both dollar raises and COLA raises, takes effect on Jan. 1. While Clavin said the intention was for the COLA raise to take effect in 2025, not 2024, Jack Libert, his chief of staff, said Wednesday the law would be amended to make it clear that the automatic raises would begin in 2025.
Professor: COLA increase could come at a cost
Automatic raises set by inflation are a rarity, said Gregory DeFreitas, a professor of labor studies at Hofstra University. While unionized workers fight to get cost of living increases in their contracts, he's seen few contracts that actually have them.
When inflation outpaces wage growth, as it has in recent years, workers effectively get a pay cut, DeFreitas said.
Beginning in 2027, New York's minimum wage will begin to increase automatically based on a rolling three-year average of the consumer price index. Social Security payments are another area where cost of living adjustments are made.
"I'm sure that a lot of workers would love it if they had COLA in their contract during their working years," DeFreitas said.
Elected officials giving themselves COLAs could hurt them among voters, he said.
"I could see a real fairness argument that if taxpayers are not, and even unionized taxpayers are not, getting COLAs, why should their legislators get it?"