This story has been updated to reflect that the anticipated budget gap is $114 million.
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – County Executive Robert Astorino announced that Westchester faces a projected $114 million funding gap in the coming year Wednesday and proposed bridging the shortcoming in the 2012 county budget by having unionized employees take a five day furlough and begin contributing to their healthcare coverage.
Astorino, a Republican, has vowed not to raise property taxes while funding the $1.8 billion budget. Instead, he intends to have each county department trim its budget by 10 to 20 percent, restructure debt and healthcare costs to save $39 million, and offer unionized workers cutbacks or the prospect of at least 250 layoffs.
“The unionized employees can keep everything they’ve got, but it’s going to come at a cost to their colleagues,” Astorino said of the layoffs, which would increase if unionized employees didn’t reach an agreement with the county and revenues were less than anticipated. “The days when healthcare is completely and utterly free -- that everything is covered and that taxpayers pick up 100 percent of the costs -- can no longer continue.”
The county executive said free healthcare coverage for unionized workers costs Westchester $100 million a year. He hopes to save $19 million by having unionized employees pay 12 to 16 percent of their individual health insurance plan costs and 27 to 31 percent of their family plan costs.
The furlough, which would have workers take five days off without pay, would save the county $4 million, according to Astorino’s calculations.
Contracts with Westchester’s largest union, the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), expire on Dec. 31 and Karen Pecora, president of the Westchester CSEA chapter, said Astorino's proposals will be debated.
"These are all negotiated items and should be addressed at the negotiating table," Pecora said in an email.
All other union agreements have already expired, and Astorino said ongoing talks were not going as well as he anticipated.
“The clock is going to strike soon in two areas – number one, on Jan. 1, but before that, on Nov. 15. I have to put together a budget knowing what the numbers are at that time,” Astorino said of the law that requires him to submit a proposed budget by Nov. 15. “We’re asking for reasonableness and we’re asking for parity.”
County department leaders will be asked to cut spending by 10 to 20 percent in areas that are funded by county tax revenue for a combined savings of $52 million. However, Astorino said he would be careful not to diminish services provided by the department of social services so that “those truly in need are not hurt.”
“We’ve asked them to still make sure that the function and mission of their department is complete and that they can do it. But they’ve got to do it with less money,” he said.
Westchester's expenditures are projected to increase by 5 percent from this year to $1.802 billion, according to Astorino. However, revenues are expected to only grow 1 percent to $1.688 billion, leaving a $114 million gap.
The county executive and the Westchester legislature, which has a Democratic super-majority, will negotiate a proposed budget by Nov. 15. County lawmakers will then vote on the spending plan, which Astorino argues cannot dip into the reserve funds, which are "rainy day" savings meant for emergencies.
“Saying that losing our AAA rating is in jeopardy is not being alarmist. It’s being a realist,” Astorino said of the reserve funds that are currently at 6.5 percent of Westchester's operating budget and cannot dip below 5 percent of the operating budget without the county’s bond ratings taking a hit.
“If we were to lose this AAA rating, the cost for borrowing will go up exponentially,” he said. “It will be much harder to do capital projects, much harder to do anything.”
Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Westchester’s bonds outlook from stable to negative this summer because the county has been relying more on reserve funds.
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