As county leaders grapple with large budget gaps from revenue shortfalls largely from COVID-19 shutdowns, some are proposing employee buyouts.
Westchester County was hit with COVID earlier than the rest of the state, in New Rochelle.
Democratic Westchester County Executive George Latimer says the $2.1 billion budget adopted in December needs help. As with other counties, sales tax and other revenues have dramatically declined.
“We came up with an estimate in April that we would be between $180 million and $250 million off in revenue for the year,” Latimer says. “That is directly related to COVID.”
Latimer says the county reduced expenditures in April by $21.2 million. Now, in July, Latimer says the county has identified $38.5 million in additional revenues. Plus he sees $2.8 million in reductions in the Corrections Department given a lower number of inmates. This brings the budget gap down to between $118 million and $188 million. More action is needed, and Latimer is turning to labor costs.
“We would prefer to balance the budget without layoffs and furloughs. And let me tell you why, quite frankly,” says Latimer. "If we lay off a significant number of people in the county government, we’re going to add to the economic downturn of this county.”
He says these would be a last resort. First, Latimer is proposing a voluntary separation program, or employee buyout, that can save up to $2 million this year and up to $10 million in 2021. Latimer says the county Board of Legislators will vote whether to approve the program at its July 13 meeting. The program will allow Westchester County employees to voluntarily leave their jobs in exchange for a $1,000 payment for every year of service to the county.
“We’ve talked to the various unions that are involved. This will apply to the CSEA union, to the Teamsters union, to the nurses’ union and also non-representative management, people who are not in a union in a management position,” Latimer says. “It does not apply to Westchester Community College. It does not apply to the DA investigators.”
It also does not apply to elected officials or police and corrections officers. Employees who want to accept the offer must notify the county by July 24. Additionally, the program contains a provision that if the state also enacts some form of separation incentive, a person cannot take advantage of both the county and state incentives. In Dutchess County, Republican County Executive Marc Molinaro is also proposing employee buyouts.
“We’ve proposed a, basically an early retirement incentive or severance buyout, which would include one of three options employees can choose from. One, strictly for retirees, would increase the percentage Dutchess County pays of health insurance by 10 percentage points, in essence, for retirees and includes 10 years of paid optical and dental coverage, which is not a benefit that we generally offer for retirement but, in this case, would in order to incentivize an early retirement among some. The second option is an increase in the contribution percentage of health insurance the county pays, plus a $10,000 stipend, a check for $10,000,” Molinaro says. “The third option, which would be more likely for those who may want to simply sever their employment and move someplace else, is a direct $20,000 payment to those employees.”
As for approval of his plan, per the county charter:
“The county executive is provided the responsibility of negotiating this kind of personnel benefit. We’ve negotiated that with our bargaining units. They have agreed," says Molinaro. "And upon finalization of acceptance, meaning once we know how many employees have chosen to take the incentive, I then present a final contract, if you will, including the, any change in appropriation to the Legislature for their approval.”
Molinaro says the county’s sales-tax shortfall could be as high as $50 million for the year. He and other county leaders are hopeful Congress will deliver direct state and local funding.