Since 2010, Southold Town has paid a combined $1.5 million to two police officers who have been unable to serve after sustaining injuries in the line of duty, town officials said.
State law requires Southold to pay full salaries to the two officers for the duration of their injury-induced absences. Now, however, town officials are concerned that inefficiencies in the state system have allowed those costs to build up for too long and have even prevented the police department from operating at full strength.
“You have $1.5 million-plus of tax-free money being paid with no benefit of having someone actively working for the town,” Supervisor Scott Russell said. “It’s a tremendous burden.”
One of the officers had logged 14 years with the department at the time of his injury in November 2010. The other had seven years on the force when he was hurt in June 2012. Both have been receiving full salary and benefits packages, including annual raises, ever since, according to documents provided by Mr. Russell. The supervisor also noted that their incomes during that time has been tax-free. A spreadsheet listed the overall cost through last year as $1,545,383.06. The total amount paid to the officers in 2015 alone came to just over $364,000.
When an officer is injured in the line of duty, section 207-c of the state General Municipal Law requires the town to pay the “full amount of his regular salary or wages until his disability arising therefrom has ceased.” The town must also pay the costs of any related medical treatments.
One of the officers was injured in a motor vehicle accident and the other was hurt while investigating a crash, Police Chief Martin Flatley said.
However, if an officer is injured to such an extent that he or she is unable to return to work — even for “light duty” — the officer, police chief or town supervisor can apply for an “accidental disability retirement allowance” through the state comptroller’s office, thereby shifting the bulk of the costs onto the state. If that happens, the state pays each officer one-half of his or her final salary plus an annual amount determined by the officer’s contributions into the retirement system, according to section 363-c of the state Retirement and Social Security Law.
Mr. Russell said the town finally decided to submit an application for disability retirement on one officer’s behalf in the summer of 2014, roughly four years after his injury. During that time, doctors attempted to determine whether he could someday return to work.
The other officer decided on his own to apply around the same time, according to the supervisor.
One of the problems with the system, Mr. Russell said, is that it takes so long to examine injuries, especially because after a disability retirement application is submitted, the state then performs its own analysis.
“It takes years just to arrive at a conclusion,” he said. “These questions have already been settled at the local level … but when it goes to New York State, it goes through a whole new review process.”
A spokesperson for the state comptroller’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Russell and Chief Flatley both lamented the state review process as the second half of the problem — in the 18 months since both applications were submitted, the town still has not received an answer, even though Mr. Russell calls every few months to check in.
“The process of the NYS Retirement System determining their eligibility for retirement is extremely slow and very frustrating for us,” Chief Flatley wrote in an email. “The entire time these officers have been out of work, they have been collecting full salaries, and as important, they account for two slots on our manpower allotment that cannot be filled until they are retired, and their salaries cleared from payroll.”
Both Mr. Russell and Chief Flatley said their concerns are not unique to Southold, either; Mr. Russell said other towns have similar problems and Chief Flatley said other chiefs told him they’ve experienced a lengthy waiting period for such applications.
The two also said these disability costs have negatively affected both town and police department budgets. Mr. Russell linked it to his decision in September not to hire four additional officers Chief Flatley had requested.
“This has left us two officers short for this extended period of time,” Chief Flatley wrote. “This has definitely handcuffed our ability to have a full complement of officers to serve our community.”
The supervisor plans to meet with local state legislators to discuss his concerns and to call for legislative reform to ameliorate the process. (Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo was not available for comment.)
“We need meaningful reform,” Mr. Russell said. “A system like this simply can’t stay in place. It costs the taxpayers way too much money.”
He said the officers deserve to be cared for, but called for reform to ensure that the town is not waiting — and paying — excessively while the next step is determined.
“Officers who are legitimately injured in the line of duty ought to have financial security knowing their pay will continue until the disability is addressed,” he said. “[But] those needs as an officer need to be balanced against the right of taxpayers to have their money directed to costs that are associated with employees that are performing service for the town.”