Union members pack forum on Suffolk layoffs

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). (May 25, 2011)

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). (May 25, 2011) (Credit: David Pokress)

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An overflow crowd of Suffolk employees continued Tuesday night to passionately lobby lawmakers to save 315 jobs being eliminated this summer, proposing alternatives that have largely been rejected by County Executive Steve Bellone.

In their largest turnout yet, more than 200 Association of Municipal Employees members packed the legislature's Hauppauge auditorium and hallway for a hearing organized by Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). He sought to hear their cost-saving and revenue-raising suggestions.

More than 50 speakers gave Cilmi and the other six lawmakers (four Republicans and two Democrats) in attendance an earful. Their most popular suggestion, however, has been consistently dismissed by Bellone, the legislature's Democratic majority and the Republican minority that recently voted against finalizing the July 1 layoff list.

"Why are you so scared to raise property taxes?" asked Chris Forman, a social services security guard set to lose his job.

He and many other AME members made the argument that, had the county consistently raised its general fund property tax -- which accounts for a relatively small portion of the average homeowner's bill -- it wouldn't be in such a dire fiscal position. They also asked Suffolk to lobby the state to authorize a local sales-tax increase.

But Bellone has pledged not to pierce the state's property-tax cap and has said he didn't anticipate asking the state for a sales-tax hike.

Bellone aides have previously noted that even an extreme general fund property-tax increase, after years of no increases under former County Executive Steve Levy, would not raise enough revenue to offset the $35 million in savings, through 2013, from the layoffs.

Those jobs are already assumed eliminated in the county's projected three-year deficit of more than $530 million.

"County Executive Bellone is committed to living within the tax cap, and the State Senate has declared that [sales] tax hikes are dead on arrival," Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Tuesday night, "so the only realistic solution is to make government more efficient in order to balance the budget and avoid additional layoffs."

Despite Bellone restoring 149 jobs from the layoff list he inherited, the crowd was decidedly against him. Numerous speakers said their jobs were fully paid by either grants or from outside the general fund, yet will still be cut.

"The AME employees did not create this deficit, yet now we are being saddled with the task of trying to fix it," said Debbie Wilson, a county real property appraiser.

Much of the room's anger came from AME not being offered a job-saving early retirement incentive such as those offered police unions. AME president-elect Dan Farrell declined to detail ongoing negotiations with Bellone's staff.

"I'll leave it to our meetings, and hopefully they're still progressing," he said.

Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said he believed Bellone could have saved more jobs by supporting office space consolidation, the sale and lease-back of county buildings and the sale of tax liens.

"Layoffs, at least at this level, are not going to get him to the level he needs," Romaine said. "I feel there were other things that should have been considered."

Layoff notices were mailed late last month, and impacted employees have now testified en masse, in increasingly heated fashion, at four different legislative meetings since then.

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