When it comes to out-of-control contracts for public employees, taxpayers put too much blame on local officials and not enough pressure on the state-level politicians who can really fix the situation and stand up for New Yorkers.
On Long Island the toughest contracts to negotiate are those for law enforcement employees. This is because by state law, they can automatically get binding arbitration if they fail to reach deals with county, town, city or village officials.
Only in Albany can binding arbitration be unbound.
The law was enacted in 1974 to placate police and firefighters, who, for public safety reasons, cannot legally strike. That right to binding arbitration was due to expire in 2013. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and some legislators talked about letting it run out this past June -- or at least reining it in. But politicians succumbed to pressure from unions and the right was renewed for three years.
On Long Island, cops who've long benefited from mandatory arbitration often make base pay around $110,000 and tens of thousands more in overtime. They also get as many as 70 paid days off a year and stellar benefits.
Right now, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is receiving heavy criticism because the agreements he recently inked with the Police Benevolent Association and detectives and superior officers unions will cost the county $372 million more by the time the new agreements run out in 2018.
Still, it's unlikely the county could have done much better -- and it could have done worse if the contracts had gone to arbitration, which is barnacled with precedents and arbitrators who favor the unions. That's been the case for 20 years, during which the average pay raise for Suffolk cops, reached through arbitration, was 4.24 percent per year.
Bellone got savings in the new contracts he almost certainly would not have won in arbitration. The deals also helped the county avoid as much as $43 million in retroactive pay increases that arbitrators, based on the system's track record, likely would have awarded.
In Nassau, the county is in a control period imposed by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, and union wages are frozen. Part of the reason for Nassau's annual deficit of about $100 million is the generous pay and benefits packages of police officers. Union and county officials are trying to negotiate new contracts that would lift the freeze, but haven't found a compromise to satisfy both the unions and the fiscal realities.
The situation filters down to communities.
In Amityville, more than 40 percent of the village's budget goes to its 24 police officers, 20 of whom made more than $150,000 last year. Officials want to renegotiate to get policing costs way down, but the union shows no interest in talking. The consequence could be huge tax increases, creation of a financial control board -- or bankruptcy. Maybe Amityville should declare bankruptcy. Maybe if Nassau had declared bankruptcy years ago, instead of getting bailed out by the state and being given NIFA, mandatory arbitration would be gone.
There's a tendency to blame county executives and legislators for giving sweet deals to workers, and there were some mutually agreed-to contracts reached by negotiation in which each side scratched the other's back. But consistent wins by organized labor in arbitration have make it all but impossible to deny big gains for the unions.
A 2013 arbitration ruling increased base pay for Nassau district attorney investigators by 40 percent, from an average of $86,400 per year to $121,000, and was retroactive for two years. The hike came even though most of the 42 investigators were retired police officers collecting state pensions, and 30 of them needed waivers to hold these jobs while collecting pensions.
It's time to pass some blame for unaffordable contracts to state legislators, who are running this year, because they're the only ones, along with the governor, who can break the cycle.