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Rejecting almost every cost-sharing proposal suggested by the management side, a state arbitration panel has awarded a two-year, 6.6 percent increase in base salaries to members of the police officers union in the Village of Rockville Centre in Nassau County. (See correction and clarification at end of item.)

The combination of an above-inflation salary hike and protection of existing perks for Rockville Centre cops is the latest example of a syndrome that has driven up and locked in unsustainable compensation costs for police and firefighters across New York State. Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo seems on the verge of blowing a golden opportunity to force meaningful arbitration reform.

In addition to retroactive 3.25 percent annual hikes for both 2010 and 2011, the arbitrators handed Rockville Centre cops a $150 increase in their previous $850 annual clothing and equipment allowance, and a $500 boost to a $1,000 longevity increment after their sixth year on the job.

The raise awarded by the arbitration panel exceeds the consumer price index, which rose about 4.5 percent during the period covered by the new contract. This is by no means atypical of what arbitrators have been handing police and fire unions throughout the state, even in the wake of the worst recession and financial crisis in decades. In their previous five-year contract — which was a product of negotiations, avoiding arbitration — members of the village’s Police Benevolent Association (PBA) got a compound base pay increase of 26.7 percent, including a final year bump of 4.5 percent in 2009.

The Rockville Centre pay scale prior to this settlement ranged from $33,900 “academy” rate to a top scale of $106,757 after five years, with sergeants and lieutenants earning base pay of $123,896 and $136,289, respectively. With overtime and other extras, the village police force averaged salaries of $141,384 in fiscal 2012, according to the Empire Center’s annual local government pay survey.

Rockville Centre cops do quite well in other respects, as well, as pointed out by the village’s appointee to the arbitration panel, Terry O’Neil, in a stinging dissent to the award approved by a 2-1 margin of the arbitration panel.  (Full disclosure: O’Neil has co-authored reports on the Taylor Law and Triborough Amendment for the Empire Center.)

Thirty of the police department’s 50 officers were assigned to 12-hour shifts that required them to show up just 2.6 days per week, with 16 of the remaining 19 officers working shifts that added up to 3.1 days a week, O’Neil noted. Village police get ample additional time off, including 20-27 days of vacation, the equivalent of 15 paid holidays, five floating personal days and 26 sick days a year.  Officers can accumulate unused sick days to help produce what O’Neil said is “generally $100,000 in termination pay,” before beginning to collect generous taxpayer-guaranteed pension benefits. At retirement, they can remain enrolled in a family health insurance plan that costs $18,754, to which retirees contribute a token $375 a year.

The arbitrators’ lone concession to management was the addition of four steps to the pay scale for newly hired officers, which means it will take them four years longer to reach top base pay.  But the majority on the three-member panel — a PBA appointee, and a chairperson supposedly representing the general public — rejected the village’s proposals to increase the work year, to curtail severance pay, to reduce vacation and sick allotments, or to raise health insurance contributions for new hires.

In the conclusion of his dissent, O’Neil suggests that other public workers, and not just taxpayers, should be outraged by the result.

Through this Award, the PBA remains, somehow, immune from the realities that all others face in their jobs, whether in the public sector or private sector. The PBA, somehow, remains immune from the burden sharing called for and recognized by other unions … and the Village’s CSEA and non-union employees. The Award is … an insult to all of these other employees who work many more days per year for MUCH less money. The Chairperson (of the arbitration panel) should be made to look these employees in the eyes and explain her insulting award.

The Rockville Centre arbitration award comes on the heels of another recent binding arbitrationgiving Albany city police sergeants and lieutenants retroactive base pay hikes totaling 6.14 percent for 2010 and 2011, without an important health insurance premium agreed to by lower-ranking officers.  The Albany arbitration award, to which the city’s appointee also dissented, concluded that Albany could afford higher pay for the police officers because “it is not unreasonable to conclude that the city’s residents are not overtaxed.”  In fact, as shown on Empire Center’s Benchmarking NY comparative tool, Albany’s per-capita city tax burden (excluding school taxes) ranked 4th highest out of 61 cities, and its full-market average property tax ranked 26th, as of 2010. Like all New York cities, Albany imposes a tax burden that is sky-high by national standards.

These situations highlight the need for significant changes to the Taylor Law provision giving police and firefighter unions the ability to demand binding arbitration of contract impasses. The arbitration provision next expires at the end of June, putting Governor Cuomo in a commanding position to demand major changes as a pre-condition for agreeing to any extension.  Instead, the governor included a provision in his budget bill that would cap pay increases at 2 percent a year for “distressed” municipalities only, a category that would not include Rockville Centre.  His proposal would exclude step increases from the cap.

The Legislature’s own budget bills rejected even this tepid reform and extend the existing law for four more years.  At this point, the best hope for real arbitration reform will be a 2013-14 budget that doesn’t touch arbitration, which was not really a budget issue to begin with.

** (An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the base pay increase for Rockville Center over the past four years.  The description of previous pay hikes contained in the fourth paragraph from the top of the post, has been clarified with accurate information.) **

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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