By Kathryn G. Menu
The former Sag Harbor Village Trustee and Suffolk County Legislator talks about why he believes arbitration doesn’t work for municipalities seeking a new contract with their police unions, why its Albany’s fault and why residents should know the facts.
What made you decide to host a forum on arbitration issues on your own?
It just became clear that we needed more information out there because like many things in government this is an onion with many layers and it is important for people to understand it is a rigged or closed process.
How is it a rigged or closed process?
It involves the Taylor law [Article 14 of the New York State Civil Service Law] and the interpretation of arbiters over the past 25 years. Arbiters are supposed to consider four criteria in their decisions about contract awards, one of which is the locality’s ability to pay. About 25 years ago, several arbiters put forth the premise that says municipalities have the unlimited ability to tax and that was no longer important criteria. That started escalating the cost of police services. Another criteria is the comparable settlements for these village and town PBA [Police Benevolent Association] contracts, which creates a leap frog effect. These two things combined make it a closed or rigged process.
What are some of what you call the “unfair” aspects of arbitration?
The unfairness comes from the reality that first of all the salaries have gotten totally out of line and I think most people sitting around their dinner tables would agree with that statement. And then you have to add 50-percent to cover the lifetime benefits. An officer with a $127,000 salary is really costing a village $180,000 annually when you consider the benefits. I believe if you offered a $60,000 salary you would have thousands of qualified applications for this position, especially in this economic climate, but I think resetting salaries is a very difficult thing to do.
The other unfairness is it just drains so much of what a municipality has to offer in terms of services, other areas suffer when you are spending so much of you annual budget on just your police services. For example, the village just took over Long Wharf, and perhaps rather than seek a bond for repairs they would like to pay cash but their ability to do so is simply lessened by the fact the PBA dollars take up such a large part of the pie.
It is not fair to municipalities, or to the taxpayer, but also to the other municipal workers who can suffer at the bargaining table because of the huge rewards granted to the PBA through arbitration.
The fact is [the PBA] does not have to settle. They are looking to take steps to get to arbitration.
What is your experience with arbitration?
I am familiar having served as a village trustee. I was not a negotiator, but that was when I first became aware of the restrictions you face. I also served as a Suffolk County Legislator and served as Suffolk County’s lobbyist for close to five years, and in that position I saw first hand how many mayors and supervisors asked for help on this issue.
What could Albany do to fix it? What’s the solution?
The Taylor law must be changed and clarified in terms of the municipalities’ ability to pay. I think it was written with the idea that the economy would dictate how these issues were handled, not by an arbiter who believes a municipality has the unlimited ability to raise taxes. It just has to change.
The other thing is we would hope our PBAs would come to the table and really negotiate, but because of the comparable issue they are going to be pressured by other PBAs not to offer any give backs or reductions in salary increases. If Sag Harbor PBA, for example, agreed to give five-percent towards its health care each year, other unions would be fearful they would have to do that next.
Do you think local police departments are something that should be a thing of the past or is there a way to afford local police services?
I am well aware people love to have their own police force. The Suffolk County Police Department and town departments earn all about the same amount of money so I am not sure how much it will really change anything to lose the department. Sag Harbor is a wealthy village with a lot of people who I think would say, increase taxes by some large percentage so we can keep our police force, but there are a lot of other places not as lucky as Sag Harbor and in Suffolk County they all play off each other. I am not a person who likes unfairness and I am going to fight for fairness, which is why I thought it was important to have this forum.
Bill Jones will host the Forum on Arbitration Awards on Saturday, March 9 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Pierson Middle-High School Auditorium.