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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Malverne police probed for obscure holiday perks


How'd you like to get an extra paid day off for working on Child Health Day? What about for Gerald Ford Day and Gold Star Mother's Day? How about Shirley Chisholm Day? Until recently, you could get almost two dozen additional days off if you were a member of the Village of Malverne Police Department, where the union now is fighting a decision to stop the perk and deny officers hundreds of paid days off. According to a recent investigation ordered by village officials, officers in the 1-square-mile village got time-off credit for work on up to 23 so-called "special days" between 2004 and 2007. This was in addition to their 12 paid holidays, 56 hours of personal time, at least 8.5 sick days, and as many as 18 vacation days.

The list of days included such little-known recognitions as Parents' Day, in July, and Jan. 6, which this year marked the 223rd anniversary of the death of Haym Salomon. "I had to go research Haym Salomon Day," said Police Chief John Aresta, who has benefited from the perk. "I mean, who was Haym Salomon?" Despite the obscurity of the Polish-born Revolutionary War financier, village officials can pinpoint the day the practice began: June 11, 2004, a national day of mourning following the death of Ronald Rea.gan.

Citing an unusual contract provision, the union got permission to credit officers who worked that day with an extra day off. But in the following years, officers began putting in for a growing list of days. The result: more than 3,600 hours of accrued time-off hours, scrambles to fill schedules and increased overtime costs, village officials charge. In December, Aresta told the village board about the perk and abruptly deleted the hours, including time already used. The union cried foul and filed a grievance, claiming breach of contract. The dispute is to be resolved in an arbitration process, now in a preliminary stage, expected to take several months to complete.

Counting quasi-holidays

According to a report presented at a March board meeting, cops got 247 hours in 2004 and 2005 for work on quasi-holidays such as National Katrina Remembrance Day, Armed Forces Day and Nov. 30, which honors former New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm. In 2006, the number jumped to 1,350.5 hours, or 113 extra paid days off. In the first seven months of 2007, officers claimed 2,039 hours -- equal to 170 12-hour shifts in a department of just 24 people, the report states. "It was getting to be a problem, a big problem," Aresta said. "The more time off people get, the more time off they take, but you still have to keep minimum staffing levels." Aresta, who has been chief since late 2006, said department supervisors were responsible for crediting the days, which officers did not have to note on time cards.

Attorneys for the village and the union said they did not know which supervisors were responsible for approving the time-off credit or who decided which days were special days. The Malverne police budget is $3,228,609 this fiscal year, the village's largest single expenditure. Last year, total police expenditures of $3,421,690 included $458,678 for overtime -- more than $100,000 above an anticipated $350,000. In this year's budget, the village again forecast $350,000 in police overtime costs. Officers make $37,791 their first year, compared with the $34,000 earned by Nassau County officers.

Unique union deal

Malverne police union attorney David Davis defended the practice and pointed to the now-expired contract that allowed comp time for work on "special observance" days designated by the president, governor or county executive. Davis, who represents 15 police and other unions, said most contracts with a similar special-days clause only allow the time-off credit for working on "non-working days for the majority of municipal employees." "The difference in the language is the difference in the benefit," he said. Village attorney James Frankie scoffed at the union's position. "Politicians are always saying, 'I'm going to proclaim this 'Special Cereal Day' or whatever it is," he said. "Should we get the day because we like to eat cereal?" Both Davis and Frankie said they knew of no other union that got a similar deal. Union president and Mal.verne patrolman John Cantanno said he was denied permission to speak publicly about the issue.

Unpopular policy

While the issue has riled those attending board meetings, Mayor Patricia McDonald spoke diplomatically about the dispute. "People have a hard time with change," she said. The loss of time off has proved unpopular in the department, where Davis said officers find themselves owing "hundreds of hours" back to the department. "If morale is low ... that doesn't mean they're not doing their jobs," he said. While praising the department's work, Aresta said some officers now avoid speaking to him, and several people familiar with the situation said he is being ostracized within the department. The fact that Aresta himself got credit for at least three days before becoming chief has contributed to the bad feelings.

An order Aresta issued in February that effectively gagged officers from speaking publicly about any police issue also deepened the rift, according to two people who attended the March board meeting. That order, which Aresta said was unrelated to the special days issue, was later "clarified" with a more softly worded confidentiality statement. "It's not the same friendly attitude that it used to be," he said.

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