Some of Newsday’s stories and covers on Long Island police...

Some of Newsday’s stories and covers on Long Island police payouts over the past nearly 30 years.

A recent Newsday story on top-earning county employees on Long Island showed that practically every top earner was a police officer.

And the numbers were mind-boggling.

How can that be when the salaries are generous but not outrageous?

The top pay rate in Suffolk County for patrol officers is about $156,000, while in Nassau it’s approximately $122,000. That’s an attractive base, often well-supplemented with overtime, while promotions add even more. Taxpayers understand the cost of living here is high and public safety is a top priority.

The numbers that do get taxpayer blood boiling, however, are termination cash-out totals. In Suffolk County in 2021, the biggest earner was Chief of Police Robert Brown, a 35-year veteran whose $702,922 included $542,233 in termination pay. In Nassau, the champion was Chief of Patrol Kenneth Lack, whose $855,644 included $550,410 in termination pay.

Work rules in both counties and many towns and villages give officers more than 70 paid days off per year, including 26 days of sick time over and above time when a cop is absent for a line-of-duty injury. The result: Mean base pay is predicated on about 25 hours of work per week. But cops work more than that, banking those sick and vacation days to be paid out at retirement and at their pay rate at retirement. A sick day banked today by a rookie cop earning $35,000 would be worth about $250. But by the time that officer retires and cashes that day, it will be worth at least $1,500.

TOWERING TERMINATION PAY

The upshot is that Nassau has been averaging $40 million a year in police termination pay, and Suffolk $35 million, and each carries on its books in excess of $500 million in future liability for the expense.

Per capita, Long Islanders pay about four times as much for police termination pay as taxpayers statewide. The reason is partially generous salaries, but mostly egregious paid time off and the rules by which Long Island cops are paid for it.

The largesse is nothing new. Taxpayer advocates and some elected officials have complained about it for years, to little effect. The police unions shoot streams of cash at campaigns, meaning even the county politicians who talk about trimming cop compensation are often disingenuous, and usually support the generous contracts. If they don't, politicians risk the unions painting them as anti-law enforcement.

The unions have the same grip on state legislators, who have the power to fix the system but, absent a taxpayer revolt, no motivation. New state laws that could shrink the problem include:

  • Banning mandatory arbitration, in place only for police and firefighters.
  • Revisiting the Taylor Act and the Triborough Amendment, which keep cops and other municipal workers from striking while guaranteeing them a continuation of work conditions and compensation no matter how long they refuse to agree to a contract.
  • Banning banking of sick pay.
  • Banning banking of vacation pay, beyond a small maximum.
  • Computing sick and vacation payouts at the pay rate current when they were earned.    

Counterintuitively, part of the answer might be going from 26 sick days a year to unlimited sick leave. That’s the system for New York City officers, and for Suffolk County’s correction union. As long as they’re sick, they’re on paid leave, but they never accrue days.

That’s both wise and fair. Sick days are intended not to build six-figure retirement bonanzas but to restore health.

START WITH FUTURE EMPLOYEES

The easiest way to make such changes is by negotiating them first for the “unborn” — imposing new rules on future employees only. That means the financial benefit to the taxpayer is always 20 years away, but that’s true no matter when you start, so sooner is better. One improvement cops might like in exchange is an increase in starting pay from the current $35,000 in Nassau and $42,000 in Suffolk. Labor leaders and negotiators say it’s likely that once the herd of new cops who couldn’t bank sick pay grows enough, they’ll pressure union leaders to trade away the right for veterans working under the old rules in exchange for a universal pay hike or benefit change the whole workforce could enjoy.

Other obviously fair and reasonable improvements that could be negotiated at the county level include:

  • Ending the retirement payouts for exempt employees, like top brass, to save a few bucks and set an example.
  • Paying out any banked leave annually and at current pay, rather than in a lump sum later at top pay.
  • Banning the inclusion of overtime in the calculation of pensions, which also encourages banking leave rather than taking it.

But the change that could help most, at first, probably isn’t changing a rule on sick or vacation pay. The biggest improvement would be a ban on political donations by public sector unions.

At the heart of fair negotiations must sit an adversarial relationship, with unions standing up for cops and officials standing up for taxpayers. When unions team up with elected officials to help them win elections, it’s taxpayers' wallets that are in grave danger and left with no protection.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.