Town Board discusses police retirement program as means to save cash

The Riverhead Town Board held a public hearing last week about a potential retirement incentive program for the town’s police department, the second of its kind for police officers after a less attractive offer got no response, officials said.

If enacted by the Town Board, the voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program would offer lump-sum payments and health insurance benefits to encourage some of the department’s highest-paid officers to retire, according to a public notice published before last Tuesday’s hearing.

Under the proposal, officers with at least 20 years in the department would receive a lump sum of $1,000 per year of service up to $25,000, according to a public hearing notice. In addition, according to Councilman John Dunleavy, the town would also foot the entire bill for the officers’ family health insurance plans for the first five years after retirement. After five years, the retirees would have to chip in half the cost of insuring family members.

“No one’s going to be cut,” said Mr. Dunleavy, who retired from the Riverhead Police Department in 1988. Retiring officers’ positions would be filled by new officers at the bottom of the pay scale.

A similar incentive program has been offered to town civil service employees in the past, officials said, including one that was approved last year; no officers took advantage of that program. Town officials have been working on this proposal for six to eight months as a way to save money without shrinking the 85-man force, town officials said.

“We’re trying to get the highly paid police officers to retire so we can get lower-paid police officers on for budget reasons,” Mr. Dunleavy said.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said 18 current officers would qualify for the incentive, but added that if all of them took advantage of the program it would be “devastating” in terms of lost local knowledge and on-the-job experience.

But Mr. Hegermiller doesn’t expect to see a wave of retirees from the police department.

“We have quite a few who could take advantage of it … [but] I don’t see that many retiring,” he said. Ranking officers — sergeants, lieutenants and the chief himself — would be ineligible for the retirement package.

Supervisor Sean Walter said the town could save hundreds of thousands of dollars even if only a handful of officers took advantage of the program.

“If we were able to get them to retire and bring a new officer in, it takes five years to get the officer to top pay,” Mr. Walter said. “There would be a significant saving to the town for the five years.”

The previous retirement incentive program offered potential retirees a choice between 48 months of fully paid health care premiums or a lump sum of $400 per month lump during that period, according to town code. Cops would also receive severance pay, as per the police contract. That program expired in December.

The town has already begun “canvassing” for officers to replace potential retirees using the Riverhead-specific civil service list, Mr. Walter said.

In addition to the regular civil service list, which ranks those who took the police exam, there is also a list of people who took the same police exam but are also fluent in Spanish. That list was created in December 2011.

A News-Review report in February found the Riverhead Police Department currently has no native Spanish speakers and has the least diverse police department on the East End.

Both Mr. Hegermiller and police experts said at the time that hiring new officers who speak Spanish would be an asset to the department.

The main civil service list is larger and would offer more flexibility in choosing among officers with the same score, but the Spanish-speaking list would narrow the list to only officers of the same caliber who possess “an added skill,” said Stan Pelc, director of examinations for the county’s civil service testing.

While the Suffolk County Police Department is obligated to hire at least 10 percent of its force from the Spanish-speaking list due to an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the East End town departments are free to hire whoever they choose, Mr. Pelc said. None of the towns have hired from the Spanish-speaking list so far, he said, though he is unsure why, since officers on both lists are “identical” in scores.

Mr. Walter said the town did not request the Spanish-speaking list for Riverhead residents and will hire from the main list of all potential recruits from Riverhead.

Instead, town officials will try to identify officers on that list who also speak Spanish, he said.

Mr. Walter said he hopes to adopt the incentive plan at the next Town Board meeting.

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