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Filler: Could Nassau actually save money by lifting its wage freeze on police officers?

A Nassau County police car outside of the

A Nassau County police car outside of the 6th precincy in Manhasset. (Oct. 10, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Behind the scenes, the stage is being set for renegotiation of Nassau County’s contract with the Police Benevolent Association. The talks come with almost three years left to run on the current agreement, and it’s almost unheard for a union with a deal as good as Nassau’s to willingly discuss terms early, when it knows the county wants givebacks, but these are peculiar times, for numerous reasons:

The watchdog Nassau Interim Finance Authority has the county on a wage freeze. That means that no cost-of-living increases in PBA (and several other county union) contracts. That’s pocket change, though. Officers with more than nine years in make a base of $107,000 per year, and take home quite a bit more with overtime and other extras.

No, the bigger problem is that officers with fewer than nine years in are “stuck in the steps” — referring to the nine-year process of improving their base pay from $34,000 a year to $107,000. Many of these officers left the NYPD to come to the golden grazing land of the NCPD, and the more senior officers may have left pay (with overtime) of as much as $100,000 to take a huge cut in Nassau for a few years, knowing it would pay off in the long haul. But now they’re stuck with the cut, and the long haul isn’t getting any shorter.

So the PBA very much wants the wage freeze lifted, and is willing to, perhaps, give up a few things to defrost it.

The next complication to be considered is that it’s an election year, with County Executive Edward Mangano running against a political player to be named later, and every county legislator out for votes. The PBA has some power to help and hinder candidates, although exactly how much is uncertain.

It’s also an election year for PBA president Jimmy Carver, although experts differ on exactly what that means. Only about one-third of Carver's members are stuck in the steps, and he has 32 years on the job himself, so whether his position is actually in jeopardy, and how much he actually cares whether he keeps it, are open questions.
The final twist is that NIFA, the state board in control of the county’s finances, is going to take a lot of persuading to lift the pay freeze, which is saving the county millions of dollars per year.

To convince NIFA, Mangano reportedly wants a 19-0 vote of the legislature in support of the revised contract. He’s pretty much got his Republican party mates sewn up, but at least some Democratic legislators are balking, not least because they say they haven’t seen any numbers.

All agree that the core of a deal renegotiated this early involves unfreezing cops’ wages in return for other savings. A big part of that savings is supposed to come from the attrition of highly paid veteran officers who decide to retire this year, figuring that their Sandy-swollen overtime totals are going to give them the highest pensions (based on final three years’ pay) possible, to go with separation checks that can run as much as $500,000.

But how, exactly is this a savings to offset cop raises? If they’re going to retire anyway, why give in on the salary freeze? If the freeze is lifted and the 100-125 cops the county needs to retire don’t materialize, where will the money come from to pay the bills? And is there a plan to offer a retirement sweetener to get that attrition number, when all of them would leave, sooner or later, anyway?

These are all important, unanswered questions, that reportedly have the county’s independent budget review director, Maurice Chalmers, wagging his finger and shaking his head at the situation.

Other wrinkles in a possible renegotiation that could help create savings to offset lifting the freeze include a health care contribution for future officers, lower pay for future officers in their first several years, and the big kahuna: relaxed rules on minimum manning per shift that might actually help control overtime, and thus expenses, for this beleaguered department.

Mangano wants the unanimous 19 votes for this in the county legislature, plus NIFA’s approval. He’ll need at least 13 votes, a supermajority, if he has to borrow for termination costs.

Because the pay freeze is hurting many PBA members, this might be the best chance Nassau will ever have to get real concessions out of its approximately 1,800 police officers, who, in addition to fat paychecks, get superb benefits and as many as 60 paid and sick days off each year.

But the savings the PBA is willing to produce need to be large, and verifiable. They need to be savings that wouldn’t be reaped without renegotiating the contract. The conditions are right for Mangano to make a play, but when dealing with negotiators as savvy as those the PBA brings, it’s even more important that he make sure the taxpayers don’t get played instead.