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A budget of pain

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — December 21, 2010 — The somber quiet of the Government Center midday Thursday evolved into a litany of pleas in the afternoon and ended with threats of a legal battle and massive cuts.
While the near-$191 million 2011 county budget was approved 5-3 – with legislators Kathy LaBuda, Alan Sorensen and Frank Armstrong dissenting and David Sager absent – the more contentious vote concerned the method to achieve a zero percent tax increase and no layoffs.
“Nobody does this easily,” acknowledged Legislator Leni Binder in the final Management and Budget Committee meeting that preceded the full Legislature gathering on Thursday.
She reiterated her goal of not laying any county employees off – which county leaders insisted would require an unpopular wage and longevity bonus freeze on the part of those employees.
Workers would not get a four percent salary increase nor a bonus that amounts to $100 extra for every year they’ve labored with the county.
Since that’s contractually guaranteed, the unions have come out against the freeze.
“I take you at your word you’re going to do everything you can to get rid of me,” Binder remarked, staring at a group of union leaders sitting across the table. “So be it. I stand behind the resolution.”
In the end, only legislators LaBuda and Armstrong were opposed to the wage/bonus freeze.
Thus it passed in a separate vote, 6-2.
“If I thought there was a way the county could prudently finance that, I would offer a way,” Legislator Sorensen said, recalling having to endure three years of no raises while working for Yonkers.
“I don’t have to remind anyone that the word ‘recession’ is loud and clear in this county,” added Legislator Jodi Goodman. “... We, too, have issues. We, too, have to feed our children. We, too, feel the pain.”
Teamsters Local 445 Secretary/Treasurer Adrian Huff, however, saw it differently.
“The legislators have declared war on the workers of Sullivan County,” he said.
Huff, who represents more than half of the county’s 1,100-strong workforce, said the Teamsters would be filing a grievance and taking the matter to arbitration – where historically unions have prevailed.
County workers seemed split in their feelings, based on comments made to the Legislature before the votes.
“This is a two-year negotiated raise you’re trying to renege on now,” 15-year employee Henry Belser accused. “That’s not fair to county workers. ... You owe us the responsibility of treating us with some dignity.”
Teamsters Business Agent Sandy Shaddock pointed out that the giving up of longevity bonuses will affect each employee differently, based upon their years of service. Some older workers, she charged, will not be able to recoup whatever amounts they’ll lose to the freeze.
“Not upholding your end of the contract will lead to arbitration,” she promised – a battle even legislators agreed the county is not likely to win. “You are wasting taxpayer dollars in order to fight the taxpayers!”
Several county workers spoke, noting their extreme financial hardship and desperate need for more income.
But some employees supported the freeze.
“I think we need to be team players,” noted Jason Brooks of the Management Information Systems (MIS) Department. “We might have to give it up for a year, but I think it’s necessary.”
And taxpayers like Wurtsboro’s Morris Smith said it’s about time.
“I’m tired of the government putting their hands in my pocket every time someone needs a raise,” he lamented. “... If I can do without, others can do without.”
But legislators Sorensen and Ron Hiatt worried there’s one thing the county can’t do without – its surplus, or fund balance.
County Manager David Fanslau’s budget proposal, which was adopted as-is on Thursday, balances the budget by taking nearly $7 million out of that fund balance and applying it to the general fund.
Sorensen advocated that taxpayers would be better served with a two percent tax increase than the near-depletion of monies meant to be used as a very last resort.
He and Hiatt were concerned that there’ll be nothing left to counter a potential double-digit tax increase for 2012.
But fellow legislators were unwilling to raise taxes that would not go towards employees’ contractual salary increases.
“I will not sit here and vote for a two percent tax increase to put back in our reserve fund and tell [our employees], ‘Oops, sorry, we couldn’t give you a raise!’” Legislature Vice Chair Elwin Wood explained.
Youth Bureau advocates were also disappointed. Despite more than half a dozen pleas and warnings that the Bureau would be unable to fulfill its mission, legislators – by approving the budget – agreed to co-locate one of the two remaining Youth Bureau employees within the Office for the Aging.
And the worst may be yet to come.
Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis told the Democrat that if the unions prevail in arbitration, the county could be forced to enact “catastrophic” cuts to programs and personnel.
“Those that didn’t support the budget offered no alternatives,” he rued.
Then there’s 2012’s budget.
“The abyss is next year,” predicted Hiatt.

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