By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO September 5, 2006 For three years now, the Sullivan County Sheriffs Department Road Patrol has been working without a raise, and for six years without a signed contract (aside from a memorandum of understanding in 2003).
They are the only department under the auspices of the county government which does not receive dental and vision coverage on their health care plan.
Even the part-time county legislators receive dental and vision coverage, said Sergeant Paul Slavik, President of the Road Patrol Police Benevolent Association (PBA).
For those deputies who started working after 1996, they are not guaranteed a health care plan for their families once they retire. All other county departments are guaranteed such a plan once they retire.
Next month, the department will meet with the county in binding arbitration, overseen by an administrative law judge. The patrol declared an impasse in January after the two sides could not reach an agreement on the terms of a deal.
PBA leaders said they have been seeking parity with other county departments as well as better pay. Currently, police departments in the Village of Monticello, Village of Liberty and Town of Fallsburg earn $10,000 to $20,000 more than the deputies do on average.
And it is driving deputies away to those departments. Undersheriff Eric Chaboty estimated that there could be up to 15 vacancies in local police agencies over the coming year. That could strip the Sheriffs Department of its manpower and create a safety crisis, he said. Last year, the department lost nine deputies, nearly all of them to neighboring police departments in the county, according to official statistics provided by Phil Etkin, Vice President of the PBA.
Local police agencies actively recruit Sheriffs Deputies because they have already been trained, said Chaboty. Training a new police officer can cost an average of $30,000. As former Sheriff Dan Hogue used to tell legislators, We are the training ground for other police departments.
In essence, the county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last several years hiring new deputies and training them, only to see them leave within two years to other departments in the county, including the State Police.
Yet the dangers inherent in police work remain.
We risk our lives every day, said Etkin.
Just last February, a deputy was nearly shot during a standoff in the Town of Tusten. And the department covers the entire county, from Monticello to Liberty, Bloomingburg to Fremont, dealing with criminals on a daily basis. While other police officers are eligible to retire after 20 years of work, the deputies have to wait 25 years. Other departments dont pay into their pensions, while the deputies do, said Slavik.
With the increase in violent crime, the Sheriffs Patrol is strapped for manpower now. If we continue to lose deputies, the publics safety will be at risk, stated Slavik,
Detective Jay Gorr, who is the Sergeant at Arms on the PBAs Executive Committee, said the department handles the majority of the 911 calls in the county, and last year, there were 1,941 of them.
Gorr said gang violence is increasing in the county. And not just in Monticello and the Village of Liberty, where the Bloods and Crips have been spotted, but in Livingston Manor and Swan Lake, he said. And it is all tied to the drug trade. Motorcycle gang activity has also shot up in places like Liberty where the Cycle Lords and Ching-a-Lings have been involved in disturbances, said officials.
In the Town of Rockland, Supervisor Patricia Pomeroy has called for an increased police presence to deal with open-air drug dealing. Slavik said the Sheriffs Department doesnt have enough officers to stay there long enough to stop the problem.
And Chaboty said the county is asking his department for more cuts. Two positions have already been frozen since May. He is hoping to replace two other employees who recently left, including one last month who went to Liberty.
According to official department statistics provided by Etkin, the patrol made 1,723 arrests in 2005, issued 3,197 traffic tickets, responded to 608 motor vehicle accidents, made 85 DWI arrests, and conducted over 29,000 property and business checks. They handle all family court warrants as well as the registry for sex offenders. All parole information is sent to the Sheriffs Department.
As for what the county legislators think, most were quiet when asked about the negotiations last week. Legislators Chris Cunningham, Jonathan Rouis and Sam Wohl all cited the matter as a personnel issue in negotiation.
But legislators Ron Hiatt and Rodney Gaebel said they believed the deputies deserved better pay. However, they said it would be difficult to do so now in light of the countys deteriorating fiscal situation. Wide cuts throughout county agencies are expected in the next county budget.
Hiatt said the lack of a sales tax increase hurts like hell.
The county requested a .5 percent sales tax to bring the rate up to 8 percent, but state legislators refused to back it. The county was counting on about $4 million in revenue from such a hike.
I would give them the barn, said Hiatt of the deputies. But in light of the countys fiscal situation, he said the matter would have to play out in arbitration.
Some people are pushing hard for less government, and they are getting their wish, he stated. Weve done what we can.
Gaebel said he wouldnt support any cuts to the patrol or the rest of the Sheriffs Department in the upcoming budget. As for their salaries and benefits, he said, There needs to be some parity. I dont know how the county will pay for it unless we get a sales tax hike.
The Republican minority leader blamed increasing expenses in insurance, fuel and salaries as the reasons the county is in its current financial straits.
Over the last two years, the county has settled contracts and given raises to a number of departments which were without contracts for a lengthy period of time. The Sheriffs Department was the last to be dealt with.
Were always the last ones, said Etkin.
Handling the personnel negotiations for the county is Jim Roemer of the law firm Roemer, Wallens & Mineaux, out of Albany.
Slavik described him as a union buster. He said the arbitration will cost the county thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees.
He is hired by the county to deprive employees of their pay and benefits, said Etkin.
The arbitration process could take months. In the meantime, the deputies face the same cost-of-living increases as everybody else from fuel to inflation. Yet Slavik said nobody from the county has spoken to him in over 6 months.
The patrol is one of the departments not mandated in the county charter, meaning it could hypothetically be removed from county government. However, legislators said such an idea has never been floated.
But such a rumor brought Slavik out to a county meeting once, and he sent out letters to county legislators asking them to sign support for the department in the charter. Only the three Republican legislators Gaebel, Leni Binder and Jodi Goodman returned letters in support.
That leads some in the department to wonder if the situation is political, wondering if the process is being drawn out because the new Sheriff, Michael Schiff, is a Republican who was supported in his election bid by the road patrol. With a Legislature controlled by Democrats, such a theory makes sense to members of the road patrol.
On the other hand, former Sheriff Dan Hogue, who was a Democrat, frequently complained about the low pay of the deputies while the department was without a signed contract.
And Hiatt said he would bring the matter of mandating the department in the charter to caucus this week.
The perceived politics involved has led the patrol to create a political action committee. They intend to begin endorsing candidates for political office. They even have their own Website at www.sullivancountypba .com.
Its hard to keep morale up when youre not paying guys what they are worth, said Slavik.
The county will balance its budgets on the back of the employees, he concluded.