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Long Beach police union rejects proposed contract

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The Long Beach Police Benevolent Association rejected a proposed 12-year contract on Dec. 19, two days after a contentious City Council meeting at which officials said that the expense of maintaining a local police department was no longer sustainable.

The council voted unanimously on Dec. 17 to approve the agreement, based on the recommendations of a mediator during the contract negotiations, saying that it included concessions that were beneficial to both the city and the union.

“It would make this a sustainable police department for the next lifetime, hopefully, and certainly for the duration of the agreement,” said attorney Terry O’Neill, the city’s outside legal counsel. “The goals of the city were to have its own police department, but it had to be sustainable.”

O’Neill said that rejection of the deal would be too costly for a city with the highest-paid police officers among all cities in the state, with an average annual salary of $165,374, according to Newsday.

Long Beach is the third-most fiscally stressed municipality in the state, according to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office, and a recent report by the state’s Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments found that separation payouts to employees are a major driver of the city’s fiscal stress.

The report stated that the city has struggled to fund such payouts, and has borrowed $15 million since 2012. The lowest average payout, the report said, for a retiring career firefighter, was nearly $300,000, and the highest, for a police sergeant, exceeded $600,000. The Police Department has 70 members serving roughly 35,000 residents. The budget for the current fiscal year allocated $13.6 million for the department, the bulk of which is earmarked for regular and overtime salaries.

Without more concessions, O’Neill said, the city could be compelled to contract with Nassau County to provide police services — and do away with a local police department.

“If they don’t … approve this contract, my advice is let’s get Nassau County here and talk about alternatives,” O’Neill said at the council meeting. “From the PBA’s perspective, we’ve been advised that [Long Beach police officers] on the job with more than 20 years of service would not be taken into the county’s employ — we don’t want to see that happen.”

Former Board of Education President Roy Lester and others blasted O’Neill and the council at the meeting, saying that the council was rushing a 12-year deal without releasing details to the public, just weeks before a newly elected council slate was set to take office.

“The idea of voting on something before it’s even ratified is absurd,” Lester said. “All of you, when you ran, spoke about transparency, and now, to vote on a contract, which is the biggest expense in the city — we spend millions and millions of dollars on this police force. And I’m not saying they’re not great, but … to try now to put in a contract that goes over a 12-year period without telling us anything about it … is not right.”

O’Neill said that because the contract had yet to be ratified by the PBA, the mediator, Arthur Riegel, informed the city that the terms of the agreement could not be disclosed to the public. He said that without PBA approval, a settlement would revert to a two-year arbitration award covering 2015-17. The union has been without a contract since 2015.

The union’s rejection of the contract nullified the council’s vote. One official, who declined to be identified, said that council members were under the impression that the PBA had supported the deal, which included no raises for 2015-17 and deferred 1.5 percent pay increases retroactive to 2018 and 2019. Overall, the proposal included incremental increases of up to 4 percent by 2027, for a total of 24.25 percent, according to a memo O’Neill sent to the council that was obtained by the Herald.

The deal also included a 10-step salary schedule for officers hired after Jan. 1, 2020, and new members would have to contribute 15 percent of their health insurance premiums. It also set guidelines for payouts, sick leave and compensatory time, while longevity accruals would be capped at 25 years of service instead of 35 years.

Remarks created ‘anger and resentment’

PBA President Brian Wells criticized O’Neill, saying that his remarks were met with “anger and resentment.”

“The prevailing sentiment in the room was that Mr. O’Neil’s remarks were a cheap, 11th-hour, strong-arm tactic meant to scare the membership into voting for something many members already had doubts about,” Wells said in a statement to the Herald. “Law enforcement officers have a difficult enough job. There is no reason for that stress to be compounded by threats from someone in the city’s employ.”

Wells said it was unfair to compare Long Beach police salaries to those of other cities throughout the state. “That salary that they’re using is an average,” he said. “But it’s not taking into account the younger members — it’s taking into account the most senior members, who routinely get the most overtime because the department is so short-staffed. Not everyone is making that salary.”

Wells also took issue with O’Neill’s statement regarding a possible merger with the county, particularly his claim that the NCPD would not absorb those Long Beach police officers with more than 20 years of service.

“We were unable to verify Mr. O'Neil’s assertions,” Wells said. “We also could not verify that any overtures had been made by the city to the county about a possible merger. The attempt to influence a contract ratification vote, with what appears to be inaccurate information, angered my membership as well as other police labor groups across the state.”

Wells added that the PBA recognized the city’s difficult financial situation and was prepared to offer significant cost-saving concessions “during these lengthy negotiations that have left us working without a contract for over four years.

“However, the membership felt this recommendation cut too deeply into almost every benefit of the collective bargaining agreement we currently work under,” Wells continued. “The length of the deal was also a concern. Although the membership liked the idea of a long-term contract, many members doubted the city would honor the terms as the years went on, and the raises became more costly.”

The biggest concerns, Wells said, were the “perceived” penalties for staying past 25 years, having to pay into health care at retirement and the changing of certain pay rates to reflect an hourly wage “that was not consistent with the schedule we work.”

“These and other changes forced many relatively young members with families to support to give sudden and serious consideration to an abrupt retirement, or face a significant decrease and loss of benefits,” he said. “Much of the current membership felt they were being pushed out so the city could hire new cops with a drastically reduced benefit package.” 

Wells said he was hopeful that the city and PBA could reach an agreement after arbitration talks begin this month. “The PBA has gotten to know the incoming city council members well during the Democratic primary election and the general election,” he said. “We are confident that they have the city’s and the PBA’s best interests at heart, as do I. As long as we’re all operating from that starting point, I see no reason why we can't make a deal both sides will find fair.”