When we turn on the lights on January 1, 2012, we’ll be close to $11.5 million in the hole; so while we sit here and struggle with $2 million today, you can multiply that by five, and that does not take into account health insurance increases, pension increases, or cuts in funding from Albany. So as difficult and wrenching as this is, the task has just begun. The rhetoric needs to be toned down.”
That was Sullivan County chairman Jonathan Rouis speaking just after the legislature voted to cut 32 vacant positions from the county payroll and 16 filled positions. The vote came after a parade of county workers sounded off about the cuts at a meeting at the government center on February 4.
County employee Elise Kennedy criticized the plan to cut three positions from public health in the same year when funds were given to organizations such as The Eagle Institute and the Sullivan County Long Beards. She said, “The welfare of babies and children should always come first, certainly before eagles or long beards.”
Martha Wilcox, also with public health nursing, said the cuts were ill-advised especially because “Sullivan County ranks second from the bottom” in providing health care to its residents.
Henry Belzer said that he had seen people crying in the hallways earlier in the day. He was also one of several speakers who warned lawmakers that they are all up for election this year, and they may likely be voted out of office in November after voting for the cuts.
Dina Jester, whose position was targeted for elimination and who works with families where child abuse is a factor, said, “I know I’ve made a difference, and that’s why I’m here pleading for my position.”
The vote to move ahead with the cuts came moments after lawmakers voted to reinstate four percent raises and longevity bonus payments that had been agreed to in contracts with union workers that were negotiated in 2008.
In December 2010, lawmakers voted on a budget that included an across-the-board salary freeze, which they said would have eliminated the need for any layoffs this year. But the unions would not agree to the freeze and deferment of the longevity payments and filed grievances with the state. The lawmakers ultimately came to believe the union’s challenges would have been successful, and layoffs could not be avoided. Rouis warned that additional layoffs may be coming later in the year.
County officials used $7 million in reserve funds to balance the 2011 budget funds that will not be available next year. Unless sales tax revenues unexpectedly rebound with surprising strength, which officials are not expecting, the budget process for 2012 could mean an even greater number of layoffs in combination with a significant property tax increase, unless Albany passes a two percent property tax increase cap, in which case the layoffs will be even more significant.