Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino's signature jobs-for-savings budget mantra resurfaced again Thursday when the Republican called on five county unions working without a contract to start kicking in a percentage of their health care costs.
The county executive has already said raising taxes in 2013 isn't an option, which is a plus for Westchester residents, who pay more in property taxes -- for school, county and local government -- than in any other county in the nation.
During a preview of what's to come next month when Astorino releases his budget proposal, the county executive said union workers, notably members of the Civil Service Employees Association, need to start contributing to help plug an expected $86-million hole in 2013.
In addition to the 3,300-member CSEA, the county's largest labor union, Astorino wants the Police Benevolent Association, Superior Officers of the PBA, New York Nurses Association and the District Attorney's Investigators PBA to contribute.
The message sounded similar to others Astorino has sent over the past two years, and this year, workers could be facing roughly 800 layoffs. But unlike previous years, there is no longer a supermajority of Democrats on the Board of Legislators, which gives the county executive a lot more leverage with potential cuts; changes can't simply be overridden by lawmakers along party lines.
Health care contributions don't solve the county's budget imbalance, but having workers pay a percentage is a reasonable request in this more austere era. If the unions agree, it would translate into an estimated $1,000 a year contribution for single coverage and $2,600 for family coverage.
That adds up to real savings for the county when it's trying to nip away at expenses.
In addition to the county's $120-million health care costs this year going up by $5 million in 2013, other expenses driving the budget are $91 million for pensions (up $12 million), and $224 million for Medicaid (up $8 million).
While not an absolute solution, contributions from unionized workers -- who have yet to agree to them -- would also bring them into parity with the rest of the county workforce and, more important, with taxpayers, many of whom have been kicking in for their own health insurance for years.
The county's nonunion workers have been contributing 15 percent since 2010, and earlier this year, the unions representing mid-level managers, corrections officers and higher ranking corrections officers all agreed to pay 12.5 percent of their premiums, with gradual increases up to 15 percent.
It's optimistic to think contract negotiations with five unions working without a contract would be settled by the time the 2013 budget is in place, but it's clear health care is on the table.
The time has come for these holdouts to join three unions that have already agreed to such a contribution -- one that will help the county's fiscal health.