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Westchester County workers lament looming layoffs

Anthony Steward, a maintenance mechanic with Westchester County

Anthony Steward, a maintenance mechanic with Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, will lose his job next week. He is photographed at home in Mount Vernon. (Dec. 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

Having spent months recovering from an on-the-job knee injury, Anthony Steward was eager to return to work as a mechanic at Rye Playland in January.

Now the 24-year-old is wondering whether he'll be able to support his wife and two young children on an unemployment check.

Steward is one of about 50 Westchester County workers slated to lose their jobs Jan. 1, when the county's 2013 budget takes effect, according to the county's Human Resources Department. The budget technically cuts 70 positions, but because of Civil Service rules, some workers might be transferred to other jobs that remain funded.

"I'm really upset," said Steward, a Mount Vernon resident who started as an hourly worker at the county-owned amusement park in 2005 and worked up to around $44,000 a year as a salaried employee.

"It's been really stressful," he said. "I'll also lose my benefits. It's really crazy. I planned on moving up in the county."

Drafted by Republican County Executive Rob Astorino and a coalition of Republicans and Democrats on the Board of Legislators, the county's $1.7 billion budget for 2013 bridged a projected $85 million shortfall by slashing workers, trimming popular programs, increasing fees and floating new debt.

In line with Astorino's pledge not to increase the county's tax levy, the budget did not include property tax hikes. That has led Steward to feel like he has been overlooked by the county executive.

"He's willing to lay off bodies to prove a point," Steward said. "How would he feel if he was laid off and had to collect unemployment?"

The irony, Steward said, is that Playland is due to receive federal funding to repair $12 million in damages from Hurricane Sandy as well as tens of millions of dollars under a plan floated by Astorino to hand management of the park over to a nonprofit organization.

"Playland is going to get a lot of money to rebuild," he said. "There is a lot of work to be done there."

Astorino spokeswoman Donna Greene said Steward's situation was regrettable.

But she laid the blame on Steward's union, the Civil Service Employees Association, or CSEA. Throughout the budget process, Astorino claimed the county's largest union was unwilling to compromise on a new contract. Astorino wanted workers to contribute to the cost of health care they now receive for free.

"Layoffs could have been averted, perhaps entirely, had the union reached an agreement to contribute to its health care," Greene said.

The CSEA and county officials are still negotiating a contract and last met to discuss a deal Wednesday, said Greene and CSEA president Karen Pecora. Both declined to share details of the negotiations. Pecora said she was hopeful an agreement could be reached soon. The union has offered to a share of the cost of health care, but not the amount Astorino has demanded, she said.

Even if the talks yield a new contract in the coming days, the union's membership would need to ratify the deal, a vote that could take weeks to organize, so it's not certain a deal would avert the layoffs.

If the labor talks continue into 2013, Pecora won't be representing the CSEA at the negotiating table. Her $55,000-a-year job as a secretary in the Parks Department is on the chopping block under the new budget.

"I'm going to be laid off at the end of the year," she said. "That's the reality."

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