Suffolk Closeup —The vicious cycle of police pay

KARL GROSSMAN

What’s new in the system of arbitration that sets police salaries is more money is now involved.

“The people of Suffolk County can’t afford this,” declared Suffolk County Legislator Joseph Rizzo in 1996 after arbitration — provided under New York State’s Taylor Law — raised the base salary of senior patrol officers in the Suffolk County Police Department from $59,540 to $70,658.

Today, says former Suffolk Legislator Bill Jones — a leader on Long Island these days  challenging the arbitration process setting police pay — the average base salary of patrol officers not only in the county department but on town and village forces is $100,000. Then, he notes, there is 50 percent in “added benefits.”

The system is “going to bankrupt us if they continue at this pace,” complained Mr. Rizzo 17 years ago.  The police unions, he said then, sought pay increases regardless of a municipality’s ability to pay. They strategized that they need not settle through negotiations knowing “we’ll get it from the arbitrator.”

Mr. Jones, at a forum on the arbitration process for police pay that he organized last month in Sag Harbor, called the system “unfair,” accused the police unions of being “arrogant” and said that nothing less than “tyranny” is involved. There’s a “giveaway mentality” among the state arbitrators, he said, with several taking the position that because municipalities “have a limitless ability to tax they have a limitless ability to pay.” Meanwhile, with police salaries having skyrocketed, “only crumbs are left” for other governmental services.

In Suffolk, in between Mr. Rizzo’s attack on the system in the ‘90s and Mr. Jones’ challenge now, was Steve Levy, county executive from 2004 through 2011.  As the head of county government, he blasted the arbitration system in setting police pay and attacked the political clout of police unions, accusing them of manipulating governments by using their endorsements as a weapon. It became a veritable war between Mr. Levy and Suffolk police unions.

At the issue’s center is the Taylor Law, its proper name the Public Employees Fair Employment Act. It’s called the Taylor Law for George Taylor, a professor of industrial research appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to chair a commission that developed the 1967 law. Its aim was — and is — to provide a way to resolve contract disputes for public employees while banning their right to strike. If negotiations don’t work out, binding arbitration kicks in.

But, as Mr. Jones protested at the forum, for police unions, there are “negotiations in name only.” Sometimes there is a settlement because, said Mr. Jones, public officials “fear going to arbitration knowing this is a rigged system.” The police unions are more than eager for arbitration, he said, since there’ve been decades of “incredible giveaways” under the process.

In it the union selects one arbitrator, the municipality selects another and the third is agreed upon by both parties. Not only is there an absence of concern, complained Mr. Jones, about the financial impact on the affected municipality, but the arbitrators routinely allow “whipsaw” to take place, or increasing salaries in one municipality because of higher police pay in a neighboring jurisdiction. And then, when it comes time to set police pay again in the latter jurisdiction, they order a jump based on these increases. This “spiral goes on and on,” insisted Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones, of Shinnecock Hills, has experience on the county, village and town levels. As well as being a Suffolk legislator, he was a lobbyist for Suffolk government in Albany for five years. He was a Sag Harbor Village trustee. He retired last year as Southampton Town’s director of human services.

“Clearly there needs to be a change,” he maintains, most importantly involving some sort of pay limit linked to a municipality’s “ability to pay.” Mr. Jones emphasizes that “I am not alone in this” and that the problem has been “going on for decades.” If it weren’t for the “dysfunctional” condition of New York State government and the power of the police unions, there would have been change, he says.

Police union leaders defend the system. The Taylor Law, they have noted, provides that arbitrators consider “hazards of employment” and arduous and dangerous police work calls for ample pay.

And so the cycle continues.

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