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Editorial: Amityville's budget woes and hard choices

An Amityville Police car sits on the side

An Amityville Police car sits on the side of Broadway in Amityville Village on Tuesday, February 25, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

The budget clash playing out in Amityville Village is a cautionary tale about the ways in which generous labor contracts can strangle municipal finances.

Spending on police represents more than 40 percent of Amityville's overall budget. To help make ends meet, officials in the cash-strapped village have asked the police union to reopen a contract that runs through 2018. So far, the union has not agreed. The village wants to freeze the base pay of officers whose gross earnings last year exceeded $150,000. That applies to 20 of the 24 officers -- an unsustainable pay scale.

Village officials say without an agreement they could face three options -- double-digit tax increases, a financial control board or bankruptcy -- none of which is palatable to trustees. But Amityville has been struggling for years. It is under "significant fiscal stress," according to the state comptroller, and its debt rating was downgraded last year to a notch above junk bond status, with a warning about its "limited ability to reduce personnel costs." The police contract signed two weeks before last year's village election included some concessions, such as new hires contributing to health case costs, but it also guarantees wages will "mirror" those earned by highly paid Suffolk County police. That defies common sense.

Amityville's struggles are not unique. In Sag Harbor, police costs are more than half of the overall village budget, leading officials to consider farming out some or all police work to other police agencies.

The rub in Amityville -- as elsewhere -- is that residents love their police force, and with good reason. Officers respond to calls immediately and know intimately the people and businesses in the village. But Amityville -- and, eventually, other municipalities -- must decide how much they can afford to pay for that privilege. If costs are not reined in, the price might be too high to bear.