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City DEP cops win their own union

After years of effort, they break away from LEEBA


They protect some of the nation’s most critical infrastructure, yet the 166 police officers who patrol the nearly 2,000 square miles that make up the New York City Water Supply System are among the lowest-paid cops in the state. 

But after battling to get out from the clutches of a municipal union that they say has failed to adequately represent them, the Department of Environmental Protection officers have set out on their own. It took the better part of five years, but the officers successfully broke away from the Law Enforcement Employees Benevolent Association and created their own union. 

In balloting last month, the Department of Environmental Protections officers voted by a 138 to 15 margin to leave LEEBA and to select the Environmental Police Benevolent Association as their representatives. 

And while there’s still much to negotiate and accomplish in the next few months, the nascent union’s officials are confident they and their fellow officers will eventually secure an agreement that reflects their tasks and responsibilities.

“We took matters into our own hands,” Bruce Mateer, the union’s citywide secretary and a 22-year DEP officer, said last week. “We didn't just bitch and delegate, we were proactive. We organized. It was a very tough battle throughout.”

The vote received the green light in January from the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining, which sanctioned the emergent union’s petition to represent DEP officers and effectively separate from LEEBA. Although LEEBA officials challenged the petition on the grounds that the EPBA was not a legitimate labor organization, the board noted that, among other things, the EPBA had incorporated in 2019, had a constitution, bylaws, board members, audited bank accounts and dues-paying members. 

The vote culminated a sometimes bitter and often frustrating effort by the officers to secede from LEEBA ever since that union’s officials, including its then-president, Kenneth Wynder, were accused — and eventually convicted — of swindling more than $500,000 from the union’s annuity fund.

The union’s president, Matthew Kruger, a 14-year DEP officer, said the intricacies and challenges of getting a brand-new union up and running are more apparent every day. But the sense of solidarity among his colleagues and of admiration among those outside the union is evident, he said.

Although the DEP cops will not secure their own contract until 2026, when the officers’ current deal, negotiated through LEEBA, expires, Kruger and the city’s Office of Labor Relations held a virtual meeting last week from which he came away both impressed at the gesture but also prepared.

“Even the negotiator was there, and so it was a warming and a very nice gesture. It was almost to the point where you're, like, overwhelmed by, wow, there's a lot of people behind us,” he said.  

DEP Police officials, too, have also mobilized since the unionization vote, including those in the commissioner’s office, who Kruger said are helping distill a proper retirement pension system.

“All of a sudden, it's like all hands are on deck, and everyone's trying to navigate, make their phone calls, collaborate on an idea, make some informative decisions of how fast can this really be,” he said. 

LEEBA officials did not respond to an emailed message seeking comment on the breakaway union. 

And while Kruger declined for the time being to detail the union’s eventual demands, he and the union will certainly push for better pay and retirement options. Pay for the officers starts at just over $49,000, but climbs to $56,454 after six months. Although salaries jump to $75,593 after six and half years, it tops out at just over $80,000. According to the union, the DEP officers are the only ones in New York State that do not have a 25-year retirement plan.

Kruger and Mateer said those poor contract terms are the primary reasons the department continuously bleeds officers, such that the attrition rate is the highest it’s ever been, higher even, proportionately, than that at the NYPD. “They’re leaving in droves,” Mateer, 56, said of the younger officers. 

“But we have a lot of guys that are aging out, too, so this place, if they don't do something soon, it's going to be a ghost town, I promise that,” he said. 

For now, one of the union’s chief objectives is to retain the law firm of Davis & Ferber, whose partner, David A. Davis, is a noted labor negotiator, including for dozens of police unions statewide. “It's going to take money,” Mateer said, adding that many of the union’s officers are not used to being in this position.  

The union’s bargaining unit includes sergeants and lieutenants. The division also includes seven captains, a deputy inspector, inspector, deputy chief, chief, deputy commissioner and commissioner.

Kruger said the lack of proper union representation over the decades and a consequent failure to secure a pension retirement plan similar to that of other police means there are DEP officers working into their early 60s. Recent legislation is permitting some to transfer more or less laterally to other departments with pension credits. 

That’s a boon for those cops. “What's bad is that our department can't keep anyone,” he said. 

Kruger said that’s a function of DEP cops flying under city lawmakers’ radars for decades, such that some in the City Council are unaware of the division’s existence, despite the gravity of their task.

Dedicated to mission

Kruger, 43, works out of the 4th Precinct in Olive Bridge, a Ulster County command west of the Hudson River, and whose beat includes the Ashokan Reservoir, which is 73 miles north the city, and the Catskill Aqueduct. For all its drawbacks, the Army veteran — he was deployed three times overseas — is dedicated to the work. 

“I love what I do. I love where I'm located,” he said. A SWAT cop, he works full time diving, shooting and moving, on air, land and water. “These are the things that I was trained in from the Army side of the house to now the civilian side of the house for law enforcement.” 

The DEP officers patrol a water supply system spread out across a nearly 2,000-square-mile watershed that includes 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes, 92 miles of aqueduct and other infrastructure. 

The seven DEP Police commands — the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th precincts are west of the Hudson and the 6th and 7th precincts are east of the river, with the 1st, in Schoharie County, the farthest north, and the 2nd, in Delaware County, the farthest west. 

For now, the DEP counts 168 officers, which according to one estimate Mateer cites, is far too low to adequately police the system.  

Mateer, an Army Airborne veteran who also works out of the 4th Precinct, said a DEP-hired consultant in 2006 concluded that the department needed about 500 officers, not including supervisory titles, to properly patrol its jurisdiction. 

While the DEP cops’ primary responsibility is the watershed, they are sometimes dispatched to do what Mateer called “regular police work,” such as responding to accident scenes or domestic violence incidents. 

“We could be traveling from one DEP facility to another and being police officers certified in the state of New York.… if we're the closest unit, we're going,” he said. "A lot of people don't realize that we wear a lot of hats.” 

Mateer, like Kruger, said that despite the very real challenges, not least convincing colleagues to remain with the division, creating their own, essentially start-up union is an accomplishment. “Not every labor organization is going to form their own union, their own PBA. But I think it's already a success story,” he said. 

Wynder, a former New York State trooper, reported to prison last week to begin a 40-month sentence following his conviction, after a May 2023 jury trial in Manhattan federal court, of colluding with LEEBA colleagues to swindle money from the union’s annuity fund in a scheme that lasted about nine years. 

The former union leader, who founded LEEBA in 2002, was also ordered to also forfeit $529,000 and to pay $838,683 in restitution to the union. Kruger said he’s hopeful some of that will find its way to the EPBA, either by way of federal statute governing retirement plans or through a settlement.

On the back of recent state legislation that would permit him to carry pension credits with him, Kruger could transfer out, secure a better living and retirement, but he’s dedicated to mission. 

“At the time when this was going on with the union and me taking on this role, creating the union with all my brothers and sisters and seeing the development of it, I really want to see this go through,” he said. “I do not want to leave. I want to see this happen.”


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  • I glad many are on board to make it successful and with everyone pitching in I’m sure it will receive the fruits of their labor and present and future employees will proudly carry the banner once they see the positive changes. Good luck and complete the mission.

    Thursday, June 13 Report this