Southold police contract dispute settled — partly

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08/09/2012 11:58 AM |

The long-running Southold police contract dispute has been resolved, but only in part.

The Suffolk Times has learned that through a state binding arbitration award, which neither side has previously acknowledged, a two-year police contract is in place that raises salaries by 3 percent a year. But the retroactive award only covers 2010 and 2011, and the two sides do not seem close to an agreement for 2012 and beyond.

In his April 22 award, the arbitrator, attorney Arthur Riegel of Hewlett Harbor in Nassau County, denied the town’s request to require police officers to pay a portion of their medical insurance costs.

“That is one issue the Town Board is adamant about and is part of our demands in any new contract,” said Supervisor Scott Russell. The award provides officers with a 3 percent hike for 2010, but it takes effect on July 1 of that year and so amounts to 1.5 percent, the supervisor said. The police will receive two percent for 2011.

Southold PBA president Joe Wysocki called the arbitrator’s award “fair and equitable. There was give and take on both sides, but it’s too bad we had to go that far to get a contract.”

Mr. Russell, however, said there’s value in going to arbitration.

“On the whole, I think the Town Board found the arbitration process was worth it,” he said. “The town has a lot to be grateful for.”

The PBA represents about 50 officers, including detectives, sergeants and lieutenants. Only two members of the department — the chief and the captain — do not belong to the union.

Mr. Wysocki added that the town and the PBA have met twice in the effort to reach an agreement on a new contract, “but we haven’t been able to make progress.”

The police department is the largest single component in the town’s $39.8 million annual budget, and personnel costs account for most police spending.

In his 71-page award, Mr. Riegel sided with the town’s request to create a new police salary step, increasing the number to six. The town said the new wage step would even out annual wage hikes, slowing an officer’s rise to the highest pay level.

Although the PBA objected, the arbitrator said the addition gives the town an opportunity to control costs “at a time of increasing difficulty in adequately funding police budgets” and the enactment of the state’s 2 percent property tax cap.

The salary steps now start at $42,335 and reach $104,431 in year six.

The new step is expected to save the town $45,144 during a new officer’s first five years.

On the health insurance issue, the town requested that all officers pay 15 percent toward that annual expense, which now ranges from $8,300 per officer for individual coverage to $18,000 for a family plan.

The town added that employee health insurance costs grew by 14.8 percent in 2011 and all town employees except the police contribute toward the coverage.

Mr. Riegel said that it is clear that employee health insurance is becoming more difficult for employers to absorb. He added that the time will come, “probably sooner rather than later” that officers, probably in a larger department , will start to contribute toward the cost of coverage. But given that no other local municipality requires its officers to contribute, the town’s request is not in keeping with state public employees law.

Mr. Riegel’s award came more than three months before Suffolk County and its police union agreed on a new 10-year contract, an unusually lengthy agreement, in which police officers will join all other county employees in contributing 15 percent toward their health insurance.

The supervisor said the county police agreement puts the health insurance contribution issue “back on the table.”

Mr. Wysocki favors a 10-year agreement, which he said gives officers financial security and removes a major uncertainty for the town at budget time.

County police will receive no wage hikes for 2011 and 2012 and a 1.5 percent increase next year. For the remainder of the contract, which runs to Dec. 31, 2020, salary increases will be tied to recent arbitration awards, which range from 3 to 3.5 percent.

Mr. Riegel was appointed by the state Public Employees Relations Board after town-PBA negotiations reached a standstill. In New York State, police are the only public employees whose contract disagreements are resolved through binding arbitration.

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