For Nassau and Suffolk’s top elected officials, the heavy-handed cuts were never a question, but rather a necessity means of staving off further financial hemorrhaging and a vital, though unpopular, cost-saving measure.
In his “Year in Review” for 2011, Republican Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said he saved Nassau taxpayers $200 million annually by “rightsizing the workforce to the lowest level since the 1950s and by freezing wages for all employees.”
“Rather than increase property taxes to pay for Nassau’s past mistakes, I cut spending and reduced the county payroll by $150 million in 2012,” Mangano tells the Press in an e-mailed statement for this story. “Reducing the workforce began in the offices of my administration where we are now operating with nearly 100 fewer appointed positions—often referred to as patronage. This alone has saved our taxpayers $14 million annually.
“Nassau’s fiscal challenges required harsh remedies as the County continued to face higher costs from unfunded mandates, pensions and health care,” he continues. “Accordingly, my administration has reduced the employee positions by 20 percent, for a total reduction of 1,776 positions.”
Nassau’s finances are still in a state of crisis status under the watchful eyes of state fiscal watchdog Nassau Interim Finance Authority. Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, following a lengthy review of that county’s finances, declared a state of fiscal emergency in March.
“The truth is worse than any of us could have imagined,” he told residents in his April 18 State of the County. “Suffolk County is facing the greatest fiscal crisis in its history.
“The 2012 budget is more than $140 million out of balance and the gap for 2013 grows to more than $300 million,” he said. “The worst part of this half a billion dollar gap is that it doesn’t even include the hundreds of county positions scheduled for layoff in less than three months.”
The heads of civil service unions in both counties are livid about the layoffs.
Jerry Laricchiuta, president of Nassau’s largest public employee union, the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 830, refers to the aftermath of that county’s legislative vote approving last year’s hefty round of cuts as “the trail of tears” and disagrees with Mangano’s logic in letting go so many public workers. After all, cutting them won’t lower residents’ property taxes, but merely decrease the level of services taxpayers get for the same amount paid, he argues.
“If you laid off every county employee, Nassau would still have the nation’s highest property taxes,” he tells the Press. “So cutting the county workforce and balancing the budget on our backs is not the answer to Nassau’s fiscal woes.”
Dan Farrell, president-elect of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees (SCAME), Suffolk’s largest public employee union, tells the Press he’ll aide outgoing SCAME President Cheryl Felice in discussions with county officials regarding the recently announced job cuts.
Farrell says he hopes negotiations during the next several weeks will both restore some of the 315 planned layoffs and prevent further job losses.
“The morale situation has already been at a low, and I’m sure now it’s even lower,” he says of the situation. “Over the last eight years of Mr. [former Suffolk County Executive Steve] Levy’s administration, we’ve lost a lot of positions and things have been cut to the bone.”
Farrell says previous job cutting has left several Suffolk departments with vacancy rates up to 20 percent—sharing Laricchiuta’s sentiment that it’s really taxpayers who suffer when the public workforce is slashed.
“We have members that are working doing the job of two or three people already, and now with 315 more layoffs, quite honestly, I don’t know how the work is going to get done,” he says.
Talking solutions, Farrell believes Suffolk should raise the general fund tax and sales tax to try to cut into the $500 million budget gap, a problem he says will take years to resolve. Additionally, Farrell says SCAME members should have been offered an early retirement incentive, such as that offered to the Suffolk County Police Department members in early April.
“They could layoff our whole county workforce and not get to that number,” says Farrell, again echoing his Nassau counterpart. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to take eight to ten years to dig out of this hole.”
While the decision makers battle over economics, however, workers like Vignali, the former messenger for the Nassau Department of Social Services, are left to worry about their futures.