Orangetown Cops Get New Contract

5-year pact averages 2.4 percent annual increase

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

A reluctant Orangetown Town Board has approved a new five year contract with the town’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, granting an average 2.4 percent pay hike annually through 2015 and keeping all existing benefits in place including pensions, overtime, personal and family health packages and vacation, sick, and personal days off.

The contract is retroactive to January 1, 2011, when the last contract expired, meaning officers in the 83-member department will immediately get a large check, covering the past 18 months increases, including compounding. The average officer in Orangetown had been earning a yearly salary of $129,219, with most approaching or exceeding $200,000 when overtime is included. They also get 30 vacation days annually, along with a total of 26.5 sick and personal days combined. Unused days in all categories can be bankrolled if not used, and cashed out for additional pay when they eventually retire.

The Rockland County PBA has been representing the officers in Orangetown during negotiations with the Town Board over the past two years, and appears to have won nearly all of its bargaining points, with the exception of a lower pay increase than the union had wanted.

Board Split

The Town Board was bitterly split over ratification of the new contract, and that internal battle had kept the pact from being voted on for several months. Negotiations actually began in the fall of 2010, when the existing five-year pact was heading toward end-of-the-year expiration. In the end, at the board’s last meeting two weeks ago, the vote was 3-2 in favor of settling with the PBA and approving the contract.

Reluctantly supporters of the document were Republican Council members Denis Troy, Thomas Diviny and Paul Valentine, while fellow GOP Councilman Thomas Morr and Democratic Supervisor Andy Stewart voted against it.

Troy appeared to sum up the position of all five men, however, when he said he only voted “yes” to avoid going to binding arbitration with the PBA, which he strongly felt the town would lose, giving the officers an ever higher pay hike than the one the board awarded them.

“The reason I’m doing this is I’ve dealt with arbitration in the past,” Troy said. “I’m not doing it again.” Morr said he felt the opposite, and was hopeful the town could save money by going to arbitration. All five men agreed arbitration was the reason for their votes, even though they differed on the predicted outcome of that negotiating procedure.

Taylor Law

Police Departments in Rockland County are legally governed by two New York State laws that both they and their respective municipal boards must follow. One is called the Taylor Law, and applies to all negotiations of all municipalities and their public sector unions throughout the state. The other, unique to Rockland, is the Rockland County Police Act, passed nearly 75 years ago at the behest of police unions and its sponsor, then Assemblyman Ferdinand Horn of Nanuet.

Under the laws, if police unions and their town, village or city councils cannot agree on the terms of a contract, it must go to binding arbitration. The New York State Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) selects two or three arbitrators and presents their credentials to both sides. Either side can veto any arbitrator for any reason. Police unions have been in the forefront of vetoing any arbitrator who has a reputation for not siding with them in negotiations elsewhere in the state, resulting in what both sides agree is a list of supposedly neutral arbitrators who tend to side more often with the police unions than with the municipal boards. Since the arbitrators earn their living deciding such cases, their livelihood often depends on not displeasing the PBA unions, who keep in close contact with each other on such matters.

In addition, the arbitrators follow a fairly strict rule of deciding most salary disputes by taking into account the most recent settlements in neighboring communities. In Rockland County, this has meant comparing the salaries of the county’s four largest departments, Clarkstown, Ramapo, Orangetown and Spring Valley, and ordering settlements that mirror the neighboring settlements.

Troy, who has served on the Orangetown Town Board for 13 years as its senior member, said this has put his town “between a rock and a hard place” this year. He noted that settlements this year alone included a five-year agreement in Clarkstown in May with raises of 2.5% annually; a four-year agreement in Ramapo last year including 4 percent annual raises and a four-year contract in Suffern settled just last month calling for annual raises of 2.25, 2.5, 2.5 and 2.75 percent through 2015.

Going to arbitration would have resulted in a pay hike for the PBA exceeding the 2.4 percent average the board finally agreed to, Troy explained, and for this reason, resulted in his very reluctant vote in favor of the new contract, specifically to avoid arbitration.

Other Views

All five members of the council lauded members of the Police Department during their settlement speeches, and said on several occasions that their comments, negotiating tactics, and stances were in no way meant to indicate any displeasure with the officers themselves or their performance. All five also indicated they believed the Orangetown Police Department to be the finest in Rockland County, and one of the finest in New York State or the nation. Their negotiating position was simply that residents in Orangetown could not afford any tax increases this year, and that the only way to achieve that was to limit pay and benefits to the police department, which accounts for one-third of the entire town budget.

Stewart, who is mid-way through his first year as Supervisor, said he was against the settlement because he continued to believe the board could eventually reach a two-year agreement with the PBA instead of five, and then get a new contract with zero increases for the final three years. That would have averaged out to about a 1 percent per year increase instead of the 2.4 percent average the board recently awarded, Stewart explained.

Morr sided with Stewart, although for different reasons. The GOP councilman who was re-elected last fall after a one-term hiatus, said he felt the town could have persuaded an arbitrator to come in with a lower pay increase, or at least with a two-year contract. He also felt the town had a strong case to make to the arbitrator that Orangetown is suffering its worse economic crisis in many years, with a stale economy, Pfizer (Lederle) slowing closing in Pearl River with its resultant reduction in employment and taxes, two percent tax cap imposed by the state, and increasing costs for labor, benefits, utilities and supplies. Like Stewart, he also favored a two-year contract, followed by stronger negotiations on a follow-up three-year contract.

Diviny, a real estate attorney, said he favored the five-year contract because it permits the Town Board to better prepare the town’s annual budgets over the next three years. A two-year contract would have precluded that ability, and put the town at risk for higher salaries and resultant higher taxes all over again next year, Diviny asserted.

Valentine, the newest member of the council, said he had to make a business decision, based on his years of experience in running his own business, Valentine Electric. His heart told him to vote “no” and to seek lower pay hikes, while his business judgment told him this was the best deal the town was going to get, and he should support it. He said he hated going against his heart, but he felt he had to do what was best for the town, its police officers and its taxpayers, leading to his reluctant “yes” vote.

Valentine said he also disagreed with those council members who felt the town would be in a better bargaining position in two years, if they held out for a two-year contract, because he does not believe the current economic slump will last that long. Several large tax ratable are about to be built in Orangetown, Valentine said, including the Pointe at Lake Tappan, a commercial office building at Blue Hill, hotels and a supermarket on Route 303 in Orangeburg and possible development of parts of the former RPC campus in Orangeburg. If that happens, Orangetown will be better off than worse, economically, the councilman said, meaning that the union and an arbitrator in 2014 may well decide that Orangetown can easily afford a larger pay hike to its police officers than the 2.4 percent average it granted this year. He’d rather assume Orangetown will do well, Valentine said, and be locked into the 2.4 percent hikes for the next five years than face higher salaries so quickly, when they can least be afforded by hard-pressed taxpayers.

Other Issues

Several other issues besides the actual pay increases also delayed approval of the new police contract for months, but these too were finally settled at the last minute. Besides seeking higher salary increases of up to five percent per year, the PBA also put several other demands on the negotiating table, town officials acknowledged before, during and after last month’s final meeting where all of the outstanding issues were finally resolved.

The PBA agreed to withdraw its formal grievance against the Town Board over the hiring of non-police “constables” to provide security at the town police justice court. Similarly, the PBA also agreed to drop its formal grievance against the town for using the constables to monitor those entering the courtroom through recently installed magnetometers which screen for weapons.

The town and the PBA split on the issue of granting disability payments to officers injured in the line of duty, rather than sick leave. Under a last-minute agreement, the town and the union agreed to amend time limits imposed on both sides, thus supposedly making it easier to make mutually beneficial decisions in such disputes in future cases.

The final issue was the scheduling of training sessions for officers. To take the issue out of the negotiating package, both sides agreed at the last minute to give the Town Board the right to allow officers to take training either on overtime or on compensatory time, with the council given the right of final determination. It was not clear in the wording presented at the meeting where it was approved whether the comp time would be calculated at straight time or overtime rates.

These issues that the board agreed to, following several meetings in executive session going over the details, were negotiated for the town by Deputy Town Attorney Theresa Kenny. The PBA negotiated for the police union. Immediately following Town Board approval of the new contract, the PBA issued its own statement praising Troy, Diviny, and Valentine for their support.

“The men and women of the Orangetown PBA would like to thank Denis Troy, Tom Diviny, and Paul Valentine for their efforts in negotiating a deal that we feel is fair for both sides,” the statement from PBA President James Acheson began. “In light of the current economic climate, our members were willing to accept raises that amount to the lowest of the comparable police departments in Rockland County, as well as lower increases than our members would have received in binding arbitration.

“Additionally, the Orangetown PBA agreed to concede on other issues that will help the town out, which in turn will help the taxpayers,” he continued. “We proudly serve the residents of the Town of Orangetown on a daily basis and we are grateful to have come to this mutual agreement that is fair for both sides.” The statement made no mention of Stewart or Morr or of their roles in the negotiations, or their comments at the settlement meeting.

Pointe Hearing Continues

The Town Board’s next meeting on Tuesday, July 17 will continue a public hearing on the application of Pearl River Veterans LLC to alter the site plan for its already-approved Pointe at Lake Tappan subdivision, on the south side of Veterans Memorial Drive and west side of Blue Hill Road South. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. at the Town Hall in Orangeburg and is open to the public.