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Editorial: Suffolk police pact a smart change in direction

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, announces that Suffolk

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, announces that Suffolk County police will resume patrols on the LIE and Sunrise Highway in September, during a press conference at his office in Hauppauge while PBA president Noel DiGerolamo, looks on. (Aug. 2, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

For two decades, Suffolk County and the Police Benevolent Association have failed to negotiate contracts, leaving the decision in the hands of an arbitrator. County Executive Steve Bellone and the union's new leader have broken that unhealthy cycle and, we hope, have led the way to a new era of collective bargaining for the county.

The proposed contract, unveiled yesterday by Bellone and the PBA president, Noel DiGerolamo, offers labor peace through 2020, helps the county control its costs and gives officers job security. It also gives the PBA something that it wanted desperately: a return to patrolling the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway, a role Bellone's predecessor had turned over to lower-paid deputy sheriffs.

Like any compromise, the agreement has features that will please and displease both sides. But the key point is that it's a negotiated contract, hammered out in face-to-face talks limited to Bellone, DiGerolamo and Paul Margiotta, the county's labor relations director. Past arbitrated contracts were popular because they offered benefits for both the politicians and the unions. The union got more than it could have won in negotiation, and at the same time county officials were able to dodge responsibility for those costly contracts. The loser in this game of wink and nod, of course, is the taxpayer.

From the start, Bellone wanted a negotiated contract, and he proceeded strategically. The PBA supported him in last year's election, so cynics expected him to give them back the highways right away. But he smartly held that out as a big bargaining chip. To his credit, DiGerolamo kept negotiating, even after he was justified in moving toward arbitration.

It paid off for the PBA, in a contract that won't require current members to contribute to their health care. It also gives the county real cost savings, now and later. The previous contract expired at the end of 2010. This deal gives zero pay increases for those two years, averting a retroactive cost in the tens of millions of dollars. PBA members would get raises, starting in 2013 with 1.5 percent and escalating to 1.75 percent at the start of 2018, 2019 and 2020, and another 1.75 on June 1 each of those years -- a maximum of 3.5 percent per year. But starting pay for new officers will be frozen at $42,000, and the time it takes an officer to reach the top salary step is increased from 5 years to 12. That will accrue significant savings over the cost of the contract.

It also saves on health care. DiGerolamo was instrumental in getting the county's Employee Medical Health Plan to promise, starting in 2013, $17 million a year in health savings from all the unions it covers; to make new employees pay 15 percent of their health care costs; and to cap costs, based on a regional index of premium increases. That's a future savings, but it saves current PBA members from contributing. That should help get it ratified. So will the contract's protections against layoffs of officers and loss of their current roles to other unions without PBA approval.

Even with this contract, the policing function will still be an expensive one for Suffolk. But it can be the start of a new norm: contracts get negotiated, not cravenly thrown to arbitration. It's a big achievement for Bellone and the PBA. The county legislature and the union's members should look at it closely, then embrace it.