Employees glum, union angry over Westchester layoff plan

Astorino releases $1.7 billion budget

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As glum employees of Westchester County's Department of Social Services left the agency's office on Court Street in White Plains Wednesday evening, most politely declined to discuss County Executive Rob Astorino's plan to cut 75 jobs in the department.

But one who spoke out was bitterly resentful.

"They are cutting back on the wrong people," said a woman who identified herself as a clerk in the department, declining to give her name. "They cut back on the front line and the people who do the work. But they need to shed from the top."

Buttoning up her Giants jacket, the woman said Astorino has the wrong idea about how to bridge the $85 million shortfall he had projected for next year. Earlier in the day, the Republican county executive had proposed laying off a total of 126 workers and leaving 63 job vacancies unfilled to balance a $1.7 billion budget.

"If you cut five positions from the top, you would save 10 to 20 jobs for the people actually doing the work," she said. "People that come in are already angry because there aren't enough people to do the work."

Asked what she would do in the event she loses her job, the Giants fan said, "I'd go back on unemployment, and I'd be here applying for services."

The leader of the 3,500-member labor union that represents the woman, the Civil Service Employees Association, sounded equally bitter.

"We work diligently around the clock for the last two weeks, and this is the thanks we get," said CSEA President Karen Pecora, referring to the county's response to Hurricane Sandy.

Speaking after Astorino presented his plan to a news conference packed with journalists and county officials Wednesday afternoon, Pecora accused the county executive of misrepresenting the union's point of view in ongoing negotiations on a new contract.

Astorino said that the union's reluctance to agree to pay for at least part of the health insurance coverage its members currently receive for free forced him to consider shedding personnel.

"This is the awful part of this job," Astorino said. "I am disgusted to say the least, frankly disgusted, that the largest union, the CSEA, has chosen to break off negotiations and not reach a settlement."

Pecora said her union members would be happy to pay for their health care. She said other issues had proved difficult, mentioning a request for a guarantee that union members would not face layoffs for the life of the contract.

"Never once did we not agree to contributions," Pecora said in regard to health care. "The fact that they want us to contribute is not the issue. It's the amount and the procedure."

She said the union was scheduled to discuss a new contract with county lawyers on Nov. 20, so there was still time to reach a deal on health care savings that could avert layoffs.

Astorino acknowledged that possibility, too.

"If those savings are real, we will adjust," he said.

Under Astorino's proposal, the county's total 2013 budget would be slightly more than this year's $1.69 billion.

The job cuts would consist of 3.8 percent of the county's workforce, said the county executive's communications director, Ned McCormack. That translates to a total savings of $37 million, McCormack said. Outside of Social Services, about 22 layoffs would occur in the Parks Department and 24 in Public Works and Transportation, he said.

Under the proposed budget, the county would also incur $48 million in low-interest debt next year to pay portions of pension costs and awards to property owners who have successfully appealed to the courts for tax refunds. The debt allows the county to spread out payments on those bills rather than face a lump-sum payment.

Astorino didn't like the idea of floating debt to help cover those payments, but otherwise he would have had to lay off as many as 200 workers in addition to the ones he already has proposed letting go.

"It was a judgment that was made," Astorino said.

The Board of Legislators, which is controlled by a Democratic majority, must approve the county's 2013 budget by Dec. 27.

Members of the Democratic majority reacted with skepticism to Astorino's budget presentation Wednesday, saying they had yet to see the details of the proposed budget but were alarmed about how layoffs might affect residents.

"We need to be concerned about cuts in personnel that will impact programs and services that are essential," said Legis. Bill Ryan (D-White Plains).

Legis. Peter Harckham (D-Katonah) was especially wary of the new debt floated under Astorino's plan.

"That's a red flag," Harckham said. He suggested who that other local governments have courted financial disaster by using debt to handle yearly bills. "That's the kind of thing that got Nassau (County) into trouble. It got Yonkers into trouble."

In drafting the budget, Astorino said he stuck to his pledge not to try to balance the budget by raising taxes or using $137 million now held in reserve funds. Westchester County taxpayers already face some of the highest taxes in the nation, he said, and draining reserves could lead to the county losing its sterling credit rating, a shift that would result in higher debt-service costs.

"It's important for county government to set an example that government can live within its means," McCormack said. "Everywhere Rob goes, people say, 'I can't afford to live here anymore.' That goes for seniors as well as juniors."

Astorino said he was squeezed by state mandates that force the county to spend more on pensions and other costs, without providing funding for those increases.

The only additional revenue in the budget next year is an anticipated 3 percent increase in the county sales taxes. That is equal to $12 million in projected revenue, Astorino's office said.

With Faye Murman

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