HUDSON – “When it became clear that the coronavirus-related shutdown would have significant financial impacts and was not a short-term situation, there was no question that Columbia County would need to begin taking steps to prevent a total economic catastrophe,” county Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell said in a press release issued July 16.
In response, a bipartisan budget work group consisting of Chairman Murell and Supervisors Art Bassin (D-Ancram), James Guzzi (R-Livingston), Ron Knott (R-Stuyvesant) and Rick Scalera (D-Hudson), as well as county Treasurer PJ Keeler, Controller Ron Caponera, HR Director Michaele Williams-Riordon, and county Attorney Rob Fitzsimmons began meeting.
In late March, county Treasurer Keeler issued a preliminary estimate that the county faced an impending deficit of $12 million in lost revenue attributed to the economic shutdown. He said that the figure was based upon the best-case scenario, assuming a mild economic impact on county finances. By May, Mr. Keeler had updated the projected loss of revenue as ranging from $13.2 million to $20 million.
In the release Mr. Keeler said his projections assessed “various revenue streams that the county ordinarily experiences over the course of the year, including sales tax, state aid, loss of revenue from county departments, anticipated failure of property owners to pay their property taxes, and reimbursements from the state and federal governments.”
The county is legally required to have a balanced budget and it cannot run a deficit and county leadership must monitor the situation and ensure that sufficient funds exist to maintain a balanced budget.
On May 8, Chairman Murell issued a memo outlining steps the county was taking. They include requiring all county departments to cut their departmental budgets by 20%, a hiring freeze and cancellation of all summer youth programs.
The county also negotiated with its largest union, UPSEU, a deferral of certain contractual bonuses to be paid at a later date. “This was the first actual requested give-back from county staff,” Chairman Murell said. All elected county officials were requested to return 10% of their salary for a six-month period spanning June through November. This included members of the Board of Supervisors, the treasurer, sheriff, clerk, and the district attorney.
But the release says that “even with these cuts and give-backs, as well as the dedication of $2.8 million from the county’s fund balance, the real and conservative shortfalls were not bridged.”
Next, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution for countywide emergency cost-cutting measures totaling $9.96 million. Among these reductions: 20% contractual, equipment, road work, capital expenditures, and 20% from outside agencies, as well as a hiring freeze, a pause in the summer intern program, a 13-pay period one-day furlough, the use of tax stabilization funds, and a voluntary full furlough plan.
The first furlough program was voluntary and allowed willing employees to be furloughed for one or two months between June 6 and July 31, subject to department head approval. This voluntary furlough would result in county savings even with employees applying for uncontested unemployment benefits. Any employee during the voluntary furlough continued as a county employee for purposes of health insurance and the continued accrual of leave benefits.
The county also implemented a 13-day involuntary furlough of all employees who were not subject to a collective bargaining agreement, as well as the members of UPSEU. This involuntary furlough was anticipated to create a county savings of$1,426,177. This included not only the employee’s pay daily rate, but the employer payroll tax savings as well as retirement contributions. This involuntary furlough would result in employees being furloughed one day in a two-week pay period for 13 pay periods.
The affected employee would still continue to accrue all of the leave benefits as if they worked all 10 days in the pay period and continue with their health insurance uninterrupted. Any employee that volunteered for the voluntary furlough was not required to participate in the involuntary furlough.
In mid-May, county leaders began discussions with Sheriff David Bartlett regarding furloughs of staff represented by the county Corrections Officers Benevolent Association, Local 3828, as well as the Deputy Sheriffs Officers bargaining unit. In light of the essential nature of the Sheriffs Office staff, adjustments to the proposed furloughs were made.
The sheriff was asked to make personnel and other payroll cuts in an amount to cover the costs necessary to allow the county to explore a six-day furlough, as well as reducing staff through attrition and cutting overtime.
The full document on the budget is online at http://www.columbiacountyny.com/
A six-day furlough would represent one day a month for six months. The county also would require an overall permanent reduction of corrections staff of five positions through anticipated attrition between May and December 2020.
The sheriff made cuts on the deputies’ side, represented by the Deputy Sheriffs Union. The Deputies’ Union discussions resulted in a memorandum of agreement that provided for $88,333 in savings.
Agreement was not reached with the corrections bargaining unit, which filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of New York that included a request for a preliminary injunction against Columbia County. The county has opposed the request.
Savings provided to date represent just over $10 million, and the county has prepared for the remaining shortfall and the potential that the losses will exceed $13 million by issuing a revenue anticipation note to allow the county to borrow up to $15 million if absolutely necessary.
The release says the use of the note would come as a last resort, which—if there is no federal assistance and there is further delay in a rebound of the county economy—will become necessary.