Rockland approves massive layoffs
A divided Rockland County Legislature voted Tuesday to lay off 102 employees to plug a $21 million budget hole.
The 14-2 vote came after more than three hours of often-contentious testimony from county officials and passionate pleas by county workers to reject the layoffs.
Eliminated were 76.5 county workers and 25 relief or part-time positions.
The layoffs -- along with 45 vacant positions eliminated by county lawmakers May 29 -- are projected to save the county more than $6.7 million combined. The savings are projected to be roughly twice that amount in 2013 because the cuts are being made more than halfway through the current fiscal year.
Legis. Patrick Moroney (R-Orangetown) and Douglas Jobson (R-Stony Point), who voted against it, tried unsuccessfully to table the vote for a week while they considered alternatives to reducing the county's workforce, but it was rejected.
"We need to find a middle-of-the-road solution to keep our employees on the payroll," Jobson said. "We have to get everyone at the table and talk turkey."
Legis. Ilan Schoenberger (D-Ramapo) cautioned against postponing the vote, pointing out that the ratings agencies could further downgrade the county's creditworthiness, which is hovering close to junk bond status.
"The eyes of the rating agencies are watching us to see how we handle this problem," he said. "I don't want to vote for layoffs . . . but I'm afraid of we put this off we are putting the final nail in our coffin."
County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef proposed the job shedding as part of a revenue-generating package to keep the county operating through the end of the fiscal year.
The Republican leader says the cuts are needed because the state Legislature refused to back a plan allowing the county to increase the sales tax by 0.375 percentage points and borrow $80 million to pay down the rising deficit.
Lawmakers, who spent the weekend mulling over a revised list of positions to be eliminated, raised concerns ranging from the impact on programs and services that also would be eliminated by the layoffs to how the list was complied.
"There's no management on this list," said Moroney, who voted against the layoffs. "We're balancing the budget on the backs of our lowest-paid employees."
Among the layoffs: 15 employees from the county's mental health services department; 13 from the health department and eight from social services. The jobs range from an assistant to Sheriff Louis Falco making $121,130 a year to a cafeteria cashier making $16,362. Clinical psychiatrists, nurse's aides, sheriff's office patrol officers, park rangers and assistant county attorneys are among those who stand to lose their jobs come July 31.
Since 2007, the county has cut its 3,000-strong workforce by more than 500 employees, mostly through attrition. Vanderhoef's proposed 2012 budget included a proposal to lay off about 550 workers at the county's Summit Park Hospital and Nursing Care Center and sell the facility to a private company, along with several other suggested trims.
The Democratic-controlled county Legislature rejected the cuts, proposing instead the county seek permission to increase the sales tax to bridge the gap.
Representatives of the Civil Service Employees Association Local 844, which represents county workers, opposed the layoffs and have pushed for approval of the sales tax increase and bond option to reduce the county's shortfall.
The union argued that Vanderhoef is sparing upper management and political appointees in his cost-cutting plan.
Dozens of county workers packed the meeting, calling on legislators to vote against the proposed layoffs.
"There are ways to save money besides putting line workers out of jobs," said Mari Rodriguez, a veteran employee of the county's Mental Health Department. "I don't understand why the top administrators who make six-figure salaries don't have to stand up here and explain why they are needed and at what cost."
Dan Sullivan, whose job inspecting gas station tanks was one on the chopping block, told legislators that laying him off would effectively end the program, which ensures that leaking tanks don't leach into drinking water supplies.
"Most of the water we drink is under our feet," he said. "We face a potential disaster if these tanks aren't regulated."
MaryAnn Walsh-Tozer, commissioner of the county's Mental Health Department, has been criticized by legislators and union officials for the positions she tapped for layoffs, with some suggesting that she was retaliating against employees who had criticized her budgetary decisions.
She told legislators that her department had already been cut to the bone from a reduction of state and federal funding.
"We are down to a handful of programs," she said. "If I cut anything else . . . there would be people who would go without services."
At one point, Legis. John Murphy, (R-Pearl River) tried to get three jobs removed from the list -- two from the Board of Elections positions and one from land acquisition -- but the move was shot down by a majority of the board. Murphy didn't explain why he wanted to take the jobs off the chopping block, but the rejection drew applause from the audience, with some wondering aloud why he wanted to save those jobs while cutting more vital positions.
Some lawmakers came to the table with their own proposals to save county jobs, most of which will be taken up in coming legislative meetings.
Legis. Joseph Meyers (D-Airmont) for one, has submitted a resolution calling for a 5 percent pay cut for the county's top administrators and nonunion employees, a move he says would save more than $500,000 this year.
He also has called on the sheriff, district attorney and county clerk to take a pay cut. He also wants fellow lawmakers to take one on the chin, suggesting that they cut their $32,587 annual stipend by 5 percent.
On Friday, Vanderhoef sent out a statement saying he was taking a 5 percent pay cut, and before Tuesday's meeting, Legis. Jobson said he would take a voluntary 5 percent pay cut.
The layoffs are only one piece of the county's deficit reduction efforts.
Last week, county legislators held their noses as they voted for tax increases -- including a 4 percent utility bill tax -- criticizing the strategy even as they voted for it. They have also turned to the towns to help bridge the gap, approving measures to bill towns for election costs and charge them for the cost of sending community college students to other nearby counties.
Tuesday night, legislators also voted to cut $300,000 in county funding for nonprofits, from the Head Start school program to veterans organizations.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number of positions eliminated.