Yates County may lay off workers

Gwen Chamberlain

Yates County employees are bracing themselves for the bad news that could come soon, as legislators stare down the black hole between spending and revenue as they plan for 2012.

Laying off county employees is more likely than ever to happen as part of the 2012 budget process.

County legislators met on Oct. 4 for the monthly finance committee meeting which was dominated by discussion of the upcoming budget process.

Although the committee is made up of five legislators, 13 of the 14 lawmakers routinely attend these meetings, and most voiced an opinion about the approach to cutting spending. In the end, the directive given to Administrator Sarah Purdy was to consult with the heads of each department with more than four employees to identify positions that can be cut.

That means, according to Purdy, that up to nine employees of the county’s 310 member workforce could be unemployed by the end of the year. Forty of the county’s employees are part time workers.

But one of the many questions yet to be answered is this: Will cutting nine positions have enough impact to close the budget gap?

The county lawmakers find themselves in a widening gap between shrinking revenues and rising mandated costs at the same time the state is requiring a prescribed property tax cap. Although the tax cap has been promoted by state officials at 2 percent, a complicated formula to determine Yates County’s tax cap results in a figure closer to a 5 percent increase — just over $630,000.

The reason for the difference is the result of the vagaries of state government, say local officials.

“Our interpretation is the legislature and executive branch of the state government didn’t look at some of the details before they adopted the legislation that produced the cap,” says Purdy, adding, “Based on what we’re being told, there was not any coordination before the cap legislation was produced, so after it was passed, the State Department of Taxation and Finance and Comptroller discovered all these new issues that the executive and legislative branches didn’t know.”

Calling the tax cap legislation a “feel-good move by the governor,” Legislative Chairman Taylor Fitch said the ceiling is a “slap in the face to the counties.”

Reporting on progress in the 2012 budget preparation, Purdy, who is also the budget officer, noted that the only bright spot so far is there will be no premium increase in health insurance.

She said local revenues are declining, explaining that in some cases, expectations haven’t met reality.

Describing cuts she’s made so far, Purdy said she has “gutted” the capital plan, funding that the county typically gives out, computer expenses and some universal items in contractual expenses, but she noted that those measures still will not get the gap near the $630,000 target.

During the discussion, at least three of the legislators said they will insist on keeping the tax levy increase to a maximum of 2 percent, which is closer to $247,000 — rather than $630,000.

“The only way to accomplish this (getting to the 5 percent level) is by reducing personal services,” Purdy said, later adding that as the administrator, she will be insisting that there are some areas of the budget that are not cut. “There are some things that we absolutely must do, regardless of what the financial circumstances are,” she said.

Starkey Legislator Bill Holgate commented, “We have to work with each department. We can’t demoralize people. What we have to look at is what can we do through attrition and lay-offs without ruining a department.”

Milo Legislator Patrick Galvin asked if the county could offer an early retirement incentive. Purdy says that’s possible, but explains, “The state is not offering it. The county could offer it, but it would cost us money. If we had phased something in over the past five years, maybe... but it doesn’t get us to where we need to be,” she said.

Purdy says she’s most frustrated by the increasing proportion of unfunded mandates and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent rejection of a state takeover of local Medicaid costs, and his comment that the state doesn’t have money to “subsidize” counties.

“Who does he think it is that has been subsidizing the state for decades?” she asks.

Purdy says when she prepared the 2011 budget, 87 percent of the county’s tax levy was spent on programs required by the state, but which the state does not financially support. That percentage is going to increase in 2012, because of the cuts made to non-mandated programs in 2011.

She says that’s the reason behind the decision to sell the County’s Home Health certificate, and the issue that will force slashing other equally popular totally local programs.

Joy Jensen, the President of the county’s CSEA bargaining unit was not available to comment in time for the print deadline.

Purdy plans to have a proposed budget complete by Oct. 21 so legislators can hold work sessions on Nov. 1 and 2. It’s not clear when any lay-offs might be effective, something which is keeping some county employees on edge.