McKinstry: Latest missile in Rob Astorino's jobs for savings campaign

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during a Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during a news conference in White Plains. (Nov. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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Gerald McKinstry Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Gerald McKinstry

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board. ...

For three years, we've been hearing County Executive Rob Astorino's "jobs for savings" pitch.

If you'd just put a buck in the kitty every time he uttered those words, Westchester might not have a budget gap at all.

It's been Astorino's plea to union leaders since he took office in 2010: Offer up concessions, like kicking in for health care, in contract talks, and I won't cut your jobs.

This year, Astorino's budget proposal calls for 189 eliminations, and 126 of those jobs have actual people on the line. Unless, of course, they start contributing for those benefits, creating the savings necessary to keep everybody working.

But his jobs-for-savings approach has had mixed results. So far, only three of the county's eight unions have agreed to pay -- anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of their health premiums, putting them more in-line with their private sector counterparts. They are Teamsters Local 456, which represents 120 midlevel managers; Corrections Officers Benevolent Association, which includes a few hundred officers at the county jail; and Superior Officers Association, which includes higher ranking correction officers.

But police, nurses, investigators and office workers haven't signed on. And if they don't do so before a budget is approved in late December, the county executive says he'll cut jobs, but it'll be mostly CSEA positions. You can be sure of that.

"We just have a labor-driven juggernaut," Astorino says.

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Since taking office, the county executive and the Board of Legislators haven't raised taxes -- in fact the levy is down by 2.2 percent since 2010. And given the still faltering economy and Westchester's perch on top of the highest-taxed places to live lists, there's no appetite for raising them now. What's more, the number of people working for county government has shrunk by about 1,000 or so, through buyouts, retirement incentives and layoffs.

But this year, incentives aren't an option and wouldn't solve the greater problem; savings can come mostly through layoffs, since there are only so many workers who can retire early and concessions on health care contributions aren't likely in the coming weeks.

There are few magic bullets left, since state lawmakers aren't going to somehow come up with a way to control spiraling mandates like Medicaid, pensions and other costs that consume nearly all -- roughly 80 percent -- of the county's $548 million tax levy or what residents pay for county government. (The rest of the budget is paid with sales tax revenues and state and federal aid.)

Pension costs are projected at $91 million in 2013, up from $4 million in 2001; Medicaid will cost $224 million, or $8 million more than this year; and health care for employees and raises are going up by $20 million to an estimated $140 million.

In other words, the numbers don't look good.

Excluding raises and health care, none of these costs can effectively be controlled without Albany -- and that might take an act of God since Democrats and Republicans are still figuring out who is in control of the State Senate. Don't count on any help by Dec. 31.

The time has come for workers to help pay something for their coverage.

Few disagree about that, and even members of Civil Service Employees Association, which at 3,200 workers is the county's largest union, said they are not completely opposed to contributing. The caveat is that they want job security, and those guarantees won't be forthcoming this year.

Astorino has more leverage than ever before: there are seven Republicans on the 17-member Board of Legislators, which means Democrats can't simply override vetoes as they've done hundreds of times in the past.

Two leading Democrats - Majority Leader Peter Harckham of Bedford and Bill Ryan of White Plains, who recently announced plans to run for county executive -- earlier this week said health care contributions are not a panacea.

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They've promised to go line-by-line, poring over thousands of expenses, in search of savings.

"We've been here before," Harckham said. Lawmakers have saved jobs in the past by finding "efficiencies," he said.

That may be true, but there's only so much inefficiency and abuse to find in county government.

Really.

Absent workers contributing to health care, there's no way around the tough choices that are ahead.

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Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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