Astorino threatens layoffs amid $86M deficit

Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino speaks in Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino speaks in White Plains in this file photo. Thursday, he said county labor unions need to contribute to their health care costs in order to help plug a $86 million deficit hole. (July 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Nancy Siesel

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Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino delivered an ultimatum Thursday to the Civil Service Employees Association and other public workers unions.

In a preview of the budget he's proposing for next year, the Republican county executive said the unions have little choice but to make concessions on health care contributions and other issues or else face as many as 800 layoffs -- a 16 percent reduction in the county's workforce.

"If everyone starts paying for their health care like everyone else is in society these days, then I think we can make some big progress," Astorino said. "I'm asking and pleading with the unions to work with us and soon."

The county's spending is projected to outpace its revenues by $86 million next year, he said. Much of that gap stems from cost increases out of the county government's control, he added.

About $25 million of the shortfall stems from automatic increases in pension costs, Medicaid and health care. The remainder comes from hikes in other expenses, ranging from salary increases to rising prices for office supplies and fuel, said Astorino's director of communications, Ned McCormack. A news release prepared by McCormack's office predicted that health care for union workers will cost the county $120 million this year and about $125 million in 2013.

Astorino has vowed not to raise property taxes and not to use reserve funds to cover the projected budget shortfall. He has emphasized the negative outlook given the county's credit rating by Moody's Investors Service. The negative outlook warns investors of the possibility of a downgrade to the county's credit rating. A downgrade would result in higher borrowing costs for the county.

"The negative outlook is real," he said Thursday. "It's a reminder to stay disciplined."

Astorino's office said Thursday that some county unions already have accepted the health care framework that Astorino now proposes to apply broadly. Members of the CSEA and three other county unions receive their health care for free. But the unions' contracts with the county have expired, Astorino said, suggesting that any new labor agreement should require workers to pay about 15 percent of their health care costs.

The county executive said that he came up with figure of 800 job cuts by estimating how many employees he would need to cut to save $86 million. The average county employee receives $110,000 in salary and benefits, he said.

Astorino also made clear that he does not want to cripple county government.

"The goal here is not to decimate the county," he said. "The goal here is to make county government work efficiently and within the realm of possibility. There's no way I'll let 800 layoffs happen. But we have to find a way to contain our costs, or there will be a number, and it won't be pleasant."

On Thursday afternoon, the president of the CSEA, Karen Pecora, released a statement saying that the union is working with Astorino in good faith.

"Everything is on the table," Pecora said.

Pecora complained that Astorino has been unwilling to offer assurances on job security in exchange for concessions.

"What we haven't heard from the county, however, is a contractual offer of job security for our members if we are to agree to the county's proposals," she said in her statement. "This is very troubling to me, and it is a tremendous area of concern for the rank-and-file membership. Workers have the very legitimate concern that they could have the rug pulled out from under them after a contract settlement, and the county executive has said nothing thus far that rules this out."

A spokesman for the Democratic-controlled Board of Legislators declined to discuss layoffs until Astorino officially submits his budget, which he must do by Nov. 15. But Democratic Legis. Michael Kaplowitz said he, like Astorino, would not vote to raise taxes or raid reserve funds. He said he couldn't comment on layoffs until he knew more details.

Astorino said his lead negotiator, Vincent Toomey, is ready to work with the unions around the clock to reach an agreement.

"He's got his bags packed," Astorino said. "He's got his pajamas ready."

Astorino, a Republican, has refused to increase taxes in Westchester County, which has one of the highest tax levies in the state. The county's $1.69 billion 2012 budget required about 30 layoffs and some cuts to spending, but no tax increases.

"Taxes are off the table," Astorino said in the Thursday news release. "We are already the highest-taxed county in the country."

At the news conference, Astorino blasted Albany politicians for passing a property tax cap without reducing state mandates that require spending increases.

"Without the actual spending constraints in Albany, it's a farce," he said.

The Board of Legislators has until the end of December to approve the budget. Before they vote on the budget, legislators will conduct public hearings.

Last year, Democrats lost their supermajority on the 17-member board, as Republicans picked up two seats in county elections. Now, with seven Republicans on the board, Democrats won't so easily override Astorino's vetoes of changes they might make to his proposed budget.

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