Editorial: Union employees getting overlooked by Town Board

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Councilman John Dunleavy was back on the job Tuesday at the Town Board meeting.

Follow this with us: an elected leader presents a plan to give himself and his fellow town officials a raise. Meanwhile, that town is weeks away from pulling from its own dwindling reserves to ensure the bills can be paid.

During that same meeting, the Town Board approves raises for the chief of police for each of the past two years — though he won’t receive any retroactive payments. He was already the town’s highest-paid employee, but this way his 2016 salary can reflect the latest increase. The same chief of police recently rose to the top of the list of Suffolk County’s highest-paid officials by cashing out $100,000 in accrued sick time.

All this is being done while members of the town’s biggest union work without a renewed contract and two more unions wait to start contract negotiations with the town. Nobody really knows when those talks will begin in earnest — never mind when they will come to a resolution.

The above scenario might be seen as comical if it were taking place somewhere far away. But the sad reality is that these are conversations taking place right here in Riverhead.

It’s encouraging that four of the five board members recognize that giving themselves a raise right now — one month after elections, while about 200 town employees work without a contract — smacks of indifference to the struggles many working families face every day. Councilman John Dunleavy’s attempt to raise elected officials’ salaries in the name of attracting future candidates — younger candidates, he says — is a complete red herring. The proposal came out of left field, and a thorough conversation about how to actually engage the public and encourage more people to run for public office should go far beyond what their base salaries are. Getting younger Riverhead residents civically involved starts long before they’re ready to run for a Town Board seat. Getting them to vote or attend a Town Board meeting could be a better start.

Meanwhile, the town’s highest-paid employee will be earning even more while his foot soldiers will soon be working without a contract. Chief David Hegermiller won’t get back pay for the raises he’s received for 2014 and 2015, but the domino effect of those hikes will effectively make his pay for 2016 (and subsequent years’ pay — and his pension) higher than it otherwise would have been. The raise comes on the heels of a Newsday report revealing that the chief cashed out 125 sick days last year — a benefit few people, if any, in the private sector get. That upped his overall compensation to over $325,000 — almost five times the median household income in Riverhead.

Giving the chief a raise speaks to a certain amount of public frustration with government that the Town Board (except Jodi Giglio, who voted against it) seems to be either unaware of or simply ignoring. The timing could not be much worse given the fact that essentially the entire town workforce is about to be laboring without a contract — which means no raises, at least until the talks are concluded.

Perhaps placing the town’s union members higher on its priority list should be a New Year’s resolution for the Town Board.