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Editorial: Suffolk cop contract better than arbitration

Graduation ceremonies for 57 Suffolk County Police Officers

Graduation ceremonies for 57 Suffolk County Police Officers at Suffolk County Police Academy Field House. (July 11, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

The police union contract that is scheduled for a vote tomorrow in the Suffolk County Legislature deserves to win the approval of lawmakers -- but not because it's a perfect contract, smoothly arrived at and skillfully rolled out. They should vote yea because it is a contract, and because voting it down would soon trigger arbitration, which could cost the county as much as $100 million more.

That's not a bet worth making.

There's no certainty how arbitration would go, of course, but the history of those awards to the Police Benevolent Association is not encouraging. The average annual pay raise for them over the past 20 years is 4.24 percent, and the lowest is 3.5 percent. That's why the mere act of achieving a negotiated contract with the 1,700 officers represented by the PBA for the first time in two decades, as opposed to the risky prospect of arbitration, was initially so appealing when County Executive Steve Bellone and PBA president Noel DiGerolamo announced it in August.

What has happened since then is some tactical tinkering with the original agreement with the PBA, in reaction to howls of outrage that the contract was too long and too rich. That looked like indecision. It also didn't help that, in estimating the contract's additional costs, Bellone's budget staff decided to leave out some items that the legislature's budget review staff went on to list in its analysis. The result: Bellone estimated the total additional cost at $183.1 million, and legislative budget staff put the total at $268.7 million. Though Bellone insists there was no intent to deceive, the omission of those figures looked like a lack of transparency -- an impression that he should have worked to avoid.

On the other hand, the budget review estimates are a bit high, because the staff analyzed the cost as if the police force would be static, but the retirement of expensive current officers and the hiring of cheaper new ones will mean real, long-term savings.

Whatever that overall cost increase is, there's merit to Bellone's argument that it matters far less than what it's compared with: the potential cost of arbitration. And arbitration would almost certainly not bring about the structural changes that this contract achieves, such as the creation of a new, more affordable group of police officers, and premium contributions to their own health care, not only by the police, but also by the county's other unions, in a related agreement.

For the life of the contract, the starting salary of new officers stays at $42,000. The agreement also increases the number of years it takes for them to reach the top step, from 5 to 12. And it freezes the top salary for new officers; they get only the step increases, not both steps and raises. That creates a new, more affordable trajectory for future police pay -- a game-changer that makes the contract worthwhile.

This contract also saves the county an estimated $43.7 million in retroactive increases that the PBA would likely have gotten in arbitration. So, it produces short-term savings, medium-term costs, and long-term savings -- plus real structural change. Unless legislators are willing to bet that mandatory arbitration will somehow go away -- and they might as well bet on the sun rising in the west -- their most prudent move for now is to approve this contract.