Repeal of a little-known law when the state’s municipal tax cap was adopted three years ago has police chiefs throughout New York worried about their futures.
The change in state law allows new municipal boards to change the pay and benefits for current police chiefs. And Hamburg, both the village and the town, has become Exhibit A for both sides in the debate.
Eight local chiefs were so concerned that they showed up at the Hamburg Town Board meeting last week in support of Police Chief Michael K. Williams.
Earlier last month, Hamburg’s board voted 2-1 to terminate Williams’ contract and renegotiate a new one – an unprecedented move that would have been unthinkable in years past.
But the new legislation has opened a door for boards that previously may have been hesitant to change a police chief’s contract and to appear unfavorable toward law enforcement.
“I’m trying to make a stand here for the taxpayers. I do think he’s a good guy,” said Hamburg Councilman Michael P. Quinn Jr. “It’s easy to give these guys money. Everybody loves the cops – as long as they’re not pulling you over.”
Many of the nearly 600 police chiefs in New York see this as an opening to bring old-time politics into police departments and leave them earning less than their subordinates.
“They’ve really removed a big piece of the incentive for anyone to consider being police chief,” said John P. Grebert, executive director of the New York State Association of Police Chiefs.
Some elected officials say they have to start somewhere to rein in the escalating cost of government, and renegotiating contracts is one place to do it, while also perhaps saving on the “legacy” costs of pensions, which are based on salary.
“Overall, the hands of local government are tied on so many issues,” said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center think tank. “You certainly can’t fault them for taking advantage of something that allows them to have control over their costs.”
In 2011, as part of mandate relief, the State Legislature repealed a section of the General Municipal Law – known as 207-m – that tied raises for police chiefs to those received by union officers. If command officers in the union got a 3 percent raise, the chief would get a raise equaling at least the dollar amount of the base salary increase.
A month before the law was repealed, according to court papers, Hamburg Village Police Chief Dennis Gleason got a letter from Mayor Thomas Moses Sr. saying the Village Board had “disaffirmed” his current agreement, and a new employment contract would be imposed if a new agreement could not be reached.
The chief challenged the village in State Supreme Court, and Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer issued a ruling saying the Village Board can’t be bound by an agreement made by a previous board.
“The court must conclude that the current board had the authority, pursuant to the ‘term limits doctrine,’ to disavow and terminate the instant contract as entered into on behalf of the village by a prior or predecessor Village Board,” NeMoyer wrote in his decision.
That means the agreement that Gleason and the then-mayor signed in 2007 doesn’t have to carry over when new board members take office.
Gleason had worked for the town before becoming village police chief, and the town had a more generous retirement package. He negotiated items with the village that would help boost his retirement to the level he would get if he were still with the town.
“I trusted the village when I came over, and the agreements to make up the difference,” said Gleason, who is to make $126,800 this year. “The agreements they made in order to bring me over – in the long run – the village let me down and reneged on those agreements.”
In the town, board members who want to renegotiate their chief’s contract, Quinn and Cheryl Potter-Juda, say they value Williams and his leadership. But they said they are looking at all departments in the town in an effort to save money.
“When we start to look for cuts, I look at the top,” Quinn said.
Under his current contract, Williams will receive $161,000 this year. That includes a base salary of $126,100, a longevity payment of $15,100, $15,500 in double time for 16 holidays, $3,800 in compensation for switching from a four-day week to five days, and a stipend of $500.
But Quinn said in light of the Gleason decision, the town has the responsibility to look into the contract. He said the formal action to terminate the contract was taken to preserve the ability to renegotiate. For now, Williams is receiving what he is due under the terminated contract.
Williams said he is upset over the way the board members terminated his contract and had offered to sit down and negotiate before they did it.
“They have never stepped foot back here to see what I do, how I do it, when I do it,” he said. “I don’t think that’s how you treat any employee.”
Potter-Juda said the new board members will be looking at each department to save money.
“We want to do the best we possibly can for the Town of Hamburg,” Potter-Juda said. “We’re not hiding anything.”
Other municipalities with police chiefs have made similar moves. Orchard Park Town Board members wanted to amend the compensation for Police Chief Andrew D. Benz in 2012. They said they were planning to change the structure of the chief’s salary to give him a base salary plus a handful of incentives. He retired instead.
Cheektowaga Police Chief David J. Zack, one of those who showed up to support Williams, questions whether disavowing contracts is about good government or is an attempt to force out police chiefs who don’t go along with whatever majority is in power.
He is one of many chiefs who do not have a contract but who relied on Section 207-m. Without that safety net, what kind of security do chiefs have? he asked
“As soon as the board changes, you’re out? Who in their right mind is going to take that job? Will it be a constant revolving door?” he said.
Section 207-m allowed police chiefs to leave the union and jump to a job where compensation and benefits would be commensurate with what they left. It also helped ensure chiefs were paid more than their subordinates.
“They’re falling farther and farther behind. It’s making it very difficult to attract the highest-qualified candidates,” Grebert said.
He said repeal of the law also paves the way for political interference. If elected officials want something done, and the chief does not have some sort of salary guarantee, they can hold out the carrot of compensation, Grebert said.
“Anyone who thinks that doesn’t happen is pretty naive,” he said.
He said chiefs, like others, are willing to make concessions in tough financial times, but the law is giving officers an incentive to stay with the union.
“The best-qualified people in police departments are no longer aspiring to become police chiefs,” Grebert said.