Southampton Town Board Votes To Retain, Not Retire, Senior Officers

Nearly a third of the Southampton Town Police Department's 100 sworn officers have been on the job over 20 years. KITTY MERRILL

It’s about retaining institutional knowledge and experience, according to Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki. Some 30 Southampton Town Police officers, with combined base salaries topping $5 million of the total $13.35 million police base salary budget, will continue to serve despite hitting the 20-year retirement trigger laid out by New York State.

Specific to Southampton Town, New York State Retirement and Social Security Law directs the Town Board to vote each year on the continuation of service beyond 20 years, with each officer named in a single resolution. The board voted positively on the measure during its January 5 organizational meeting.

“Clearly, as a police chief, you like to have a good combination of seasoned veterans and young individuals just coming into their careers,” Skrynecki said. It’s an “ideal situation” when a department has a range of officers, he believes. In Southampton, out of 100 sworn officers, nearly a third have more than 20 years under their collective belts.

Senior members of the force impart their experience to younger members, and staff at both ends of the spectrum help each other out. “They work very well together,” he said. “I think the police force has a great composition of very talented men and women right now.”

The state law also noted “in no event shall such annual service be continued after a member has attained age 60 unless such member has not attained twenty years of service.” That means, if an officer is over 60, but has yet to serve 20 years, he or she may be eligible for inclusion in the continuation of service group.

“It’s a contractual arrangement,” the chief explained. “It allows the police chief to take a hard look at the performance of individuals and if the police chief feels people are not at the level they should be, he does not have to recommend their continuation. Since I’ve been here, I have not experienced a case where I thought that would be appropriate.”

Back in 2008, Linda Kabot was supervisor when such a recommendation was made. At the behest of her predecessor, Patrick “Skip” Heaney, she related, then-Chief James Overton worked with management staff and crafted a 20-name list for the continuation that left off six officers who also had 20-plus years of service on their records. Kabot recalled that when she put forth the resolution including the chief’s list, “all hell broke loose.” It was tabled in the face of some 100 uniformed officers showing up to protest the measure. It had been, she said, also a budget initiative posited by her predecessor because there was a $6 million deficit in the police budget at the time. Ultimately, five of the six continued in service and one retired.

Archived news pieces reported the protesters included members of nearly 20 different police agencies. Richard Wells, president of the Police Conference of New York — an alliance of 216 local PBAs statewide — was quoted pointing out that Southampton was the only town which had the power to force an officer into retirement after 20 years of service.

Reports of the 2008 fracas note that the town’s labor counsel, Vince Toomey, referenced a 1971 letter to the state. It states, “If the Town of Southampton elects to adopt the optional 20 year retirement plan for its town police department, each member of such department shall be separated from service at the end of 20 years unless service is extended by the Town Board on an annual basis.” The letter was drafted by the Town of Southampton and the PBA, its precepts reflected in the 1971 amendment to New York State Retirement and Social Security Law.

Rather than focus on the past, Kabot spoke of the need to come up with a “succession” plan. If the 30 officers on this year’s list all decided to retire, the cost could be a bank-breaker. Salary payouts can top six figures for officers with accrued sick days, holidays, vacation, and personal leave. Last summer, Southampton Village Police Chief Thomas Cummings received a payout of $774,193. His payout was significantly higher than most, but many add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

“This does create an opportunity to take a look if you wanted somebody to retire, for whatever reason, you could simply not extend. They don’t have an absolute right to stay,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman allowed. “You probably could save some money by pushing everybody out, but you get what you pay for. These people have the experience. It’s not just dollars. When you’ve been with the department for 20 years, you have 20 years of experience, institutional knowledge, police training.”