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Stage set for Westchester budget battle among Democrats, unions, Astorino

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is expected to

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is expected to preview his proposed spending package for fiscal year 2013. Photo Credit: Susan Stava

With negotiators still in talks with Westchester County's largest labor union, County Executive Robert Astorino is likely to propose laying off several hundred workers when he unveils his draft 2013 budget Wednesday.

Astorino, a Republican, declined to comment on his budget proposal, which he's scheduled to make public at a 1 p.m. news conference. But his staff and representatives of the Civil Service Employees Association, or CSEA, confirmed they had yet to reach an agreement on workers contributing to the cost of health insurance they currently receive for free.

"We've been negotiating diligently," said CSEA spokeswoman Jessica Ladlee. "We've been in mediation. We're committed to resolving this contract in a manner that's fair for all."

Last month, Astorino said that if he couldn't reach a deal with the union before the end of the year, he could lay off as many as 800 workers, or 16 percent of the county workforce, to plug an $86 million budget shortfall projected for next year.

At the time, Astorino said he would likely find other cost savings so that he wouldn't need to let go of so many employees. But he also vowed to cut personnel to live up to his pledge not to raise taxes or drain the county's $137 million reserve funds, a move that could harm the county's sterling credit rating and result in higher debt service costs.

Republican Legis. Sheila Marcotte said she hadn't seen Astorino's budget proposal. Reviewing the county's finances and where officials could cut spending to bridge the deficit, however, she ventured that around 7 percent of the county's workforce would need to be laid off.

"I'm guessing 350 layoffs," said Marcotte. "I'm hoping it's not that big. But looking at the numbers we have to make up in health costs, pensions costs and so forth, I wouldn't be surprised."

Astorino's draft budget will be a starting point for talks between the county executive and the Board of Legislators, whose members must ultimately approve the final budget before the end of the year. Democrats hold a majority of the board's seats.

Legis. Judith Myers, a Democrat, said she would need to see Astorino's entire budget proposal to comment on whether layoffs were warranted. She was skeptical that Westchester County could afford to reduce its workforce, saying Hurricane Sandy showed that now is not the time to be giving pink slips to workers.

"Layoffs are the last resort," said Myers. "We've got a lot of work that needs to get done. As far as the county workers are concerned, we're pretty slim and trim, and I think we've seen that in this storm. Everyone is overworked and overtaxed. Everyone is pulling together."

Ladlee also said the county needed to be fully staffed as it rebuilt from the storm. "Any dramatic service threats would really be the wrong thing for the county," she said.

Astorino spokeswoman Donna Greene said storm-related costs wouldn't add to the county's deficit. "While we certainly got hit badly by Sandy, between the insurance reimbursements and the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements, we don't expect this to be a major factor in our 2013 budget," Greene said.

Myers cautioned that FEMA funding had yet to come. Astorino also didn't know if Gov. Andrew Cuomo's request for $30 billion in aid for New York State in the wake of Sandy would help Westchester County, which was declared a disaster area. Talk of layoffs might be premature, she said, or the county's budget situation could be even worse than Astorino expected.

"I don't know how you can make these decisions without seeing all the numbers in front of you frankly," said Myers. "From their lips to FEMA's ears."

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