By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
Working for a municipal government with a budget that follows the calendar year is a pitfall during tough economic times, as employees hear they might lose their jobs during the holiday season.
It's been the case in several consecutive budget years for Montgomery County, and department heads and union representatives say morale is low amongst those who have uncertain futures as county employees.
Treasurer Shawn Bowerman's tentative 2013 budget released Oct. 1 doesn't include layoffs, but the Board of Supervisors Finance Committee's requisite budget recommendation includes 35 employee cuts.
"Every year, the employees get threatened, morale gets low, and everyone's left wondering if they're going to have a job," said CSEA Unit President Edward Russo. "The tentative budget is out, and it doesn't affect anyone, but no one knows where they stand."
Other than a presentation on the county's financial state, which projected a $6 million fund balance, the spending plan hasn't been worked on by the board in public session since the committee finalized its recommendation.
Board Chairman and Root Supervisor John Thayer said Friday he's called a special meeting for Nov. 27, when it's expected supervisors will introduce resolutions to adjust the upcoming budget.
Speaking for himself, Thayer said, "I would be absolutely astounded if there were any layoffs. It's not going to sway the way I vote, but I think the fund balance is going to be utilized, and it will be business as usual."
Some department heads also think the cuts will be tossed, but it appears some employees didn't want to wait around to find out.
The Sheriff's Department stands to lose five deputies under the proposed cuts, and Sheriff Michael Amato blames that proposal for the recent resignation of two employees who had 17 years of combined experience in patrol, corrections and investigation.
"It's destroying the morale of my employees, and I have to, and the public has to, live with the decisions the board makes," Amato said.
In September, Gloversville Police Chief Donald VanDeusen announced the city's hire of former county Inv. Michael Shang as its newest police officer. And in a press release last month, VanDeusen announced the hire of former county Inv. Bradley Schaffer.
Though attempts to reach Schaffer were unsuccessful, in an interview this week, Shang said he sought and accepted the new position for personal reasons.
But a contributing factor was annual threats of job cuts, Shang said.
"There are other reasons why I left, but the sheriff is right -- it's tough having to worry whether you will still have a job, to hear about the county having to cut services, and cut positions in the sheriff's office. And when it's year, after year, after year, it's very stressful, especially because it's right before the holidays," Shang said.
"I had the opportunity to go, and Gloversville welcomed me with open arms," Shang continued. "It's stable, and I get to do the job I love to do. It was hard because I have a loyalty to the sheriff, and the county, but loyalty doesn't pay your bills. This was a path that made it more secure for me, and even though I hated leaving, I love where I'm at right now. The chief cares about the guys, it's a very professional place to work, and I don't have to change the way I do my job."
On top of the potential to lose five deputies, Amato said investigators aren't positions that are easy to fill.
"It's not a position you can train in a week, or two weeks," the sheriff said. "It takes investigators over a year to get qualified."
Social Services Department Commissioner Michael McMahon said because most county jobs are Civil Service positions, employees generally know whether they're under the ax because it's based on seniority. His department stands to lose between six and nine positions.
"Even if they make it through another year, they might be in the same position the next year, and the year after that," he said. "It's the kind of environment the employees have been existing in for several years."
As a department head, McMahon said cuts mean figuring out how operations will be sustained with less staff.
"It's unfortunate, because it's not the focus I should be immersed in. It's like we're in the mode where we're always bracing for an impact. Coming from the private sector, I've seen drastic changes happen, the companies get restructured, and move on," McMahon said. "The problem with county level governments is it's like a surgeon with a scalpel, where you cut a little bit each year, but eventually you get down to the skeleton. We should be looking how to restructure and get back to business."
Data Processing Department Director Daniel Colon illustrated that sentiment at Tuesday's General Services Committee meeting. Colon's department stands to lose three employees -- two computer technicians, and the print shop operator.
"My main concern is you can't just make cuts without having a plan," Colon told the committee. "It's a little frustrating the recommendation was made without any discussion with me."
Colon pointed out the county relies heavily on the print shop, which brings in revenue, and the county spent $30,000 this year to repair the shop's equipment from flood-related damage in 2011.
"If you want it phased out, I'm happy to do that, but to just cut it out, I think it's a mistake," Colon said. "As far as the technicians go, it's the first-level support for county staff. Everyone relies on technology, and we rely on it more and more, and we need those people to keep things put together."
Colon said, "I understand it's a tough time, but but if the board is going to lay people off, there needs to be a plan how things are going to operate."
Nature of the beast?
Thayer said he understands why employees get upset when they hear about potential layoffs, but when the county has budget constraints, he said there are two choices: either cut, or raise taxes.
He said there are items in the budget the county has no control over, like a $1 million increase in pension costs.
"Because we are government, everything is supposed to be done in the sunlight, so whenever we make a recommendation, or there's a change, it gets publicized," he said. "If it was a private corporation, and there were discussions about personnel, those decisions wouldn't be released until pink slips were handed out."
Thayer said in his five years on the board, there's been only one year where layoffs were enacted.
"It's the financial situation the county is in. There's only a little fund balance, and the board is not looking to exceed the property tax cap. Even then, my own town is seeing a 4 percent increase. It's hard for someone to swallow, when the tax cap is met, yet taxes will still increase 4 percent."
St. Johnsville is looking at a 13 percent increase in taxes, even at the cap, while the town of Florida's taxes will raise nearly 8 percent, and almost 6 percent in the town of Palatine.
Palatine Supervisor and Public Safety Committee Chairman Brian Sweet said he understands the difficulty the sheriff faces when positions like those of investigators are vacated.
"The county is in the position where it's running out of things to cut, but personally, the last thing I want to cut is public safety, and that's not just because I'm chairman of the committee. You can drive through a pot hole, but it's a different situation if someone had to call 911 and wait for a police officer."
"I think we have to learn to go through the budget process differently," Sweet said. "We also have to think outside the box to find ways to share things that are duplicated, because what good is the county if everything is decimated?"
On the chopping block?
The following list details departmental employee cuts proposed by the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Finance Committee for the 2013 budget:
* Emergency Management: Account clerk typist
* Fire Service: Part-time deputy fire coordinator
* County clerk: two motor vehicle clerks and a part-time typist
* Board of Elections: Regional technicians, election coordinators, two part-time election data clerks
* Public Works: Hourly employees totaling $148,176
* Printing/Data Processing: Senior printer/composer, two micro-computer technicians
* Sheriff/Jail: Part-time dispatcher, five deputies, account clerk typist, $75,000 in part-time deputies, a part-time cook and a part-time corrections officer
* Public Health: Community health educator
* Social Services: Three social welfare examiners, director of eligibility, director of social services, support investigator, director of financial management, clerk typist, senior medical audit clerk, accounting supervisor, HEAP personnel
* Youth/ATI/Veterans: Work project supervisor
* Historian: Part-time senior clerk typist
* Economic Opportunity & Development: Economic development specialist
* District Attorney: Clerk typist, part-time criminal investigator
* Probation: Community service program coordinator
* Public Defender: Senior clerk typist
* County Road Fund: Account clerk typist, and $130,075 in highway labor
* Road Machinery Fund: $69,368 in hourly employees