Bliss

Bliss

ALBANY — County governments across the upstate region have opted to put hundreds of workers on furlough in response to growing financial deficits driven by the COVID-19 public health disaster.

In Lockport, Niagara County Clerk Joe Jastrzemski said two staffers in the county historian's office, two county veterans' service agents and his own confidential secretary are facing furloughs as county leaders try to contain the crisis.

"There is very little revenue coming in at all," said Jastrzemski, whose office also manages Department of Motor Vehicle operations. "Counties and municipalities across the whole state are hurting."

In Cooperstown, David Bliss, chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, said county department heads have been asked to prepare plans in the event job cuts have to be made. The county board is expected to discuss its budget options in the coming week.

In the North Country, officials for Clinton County announced this week approximately 150 county workers are being furloughed, while Franklin County leaders signaled as many as 100 employees could temporarily lose their positions.

In Schoharie County, an estimated 85 county workers are facing furloughs.

Veteran Albany lawyer James Roemer, a labor negotiator retained by 16 New York counties and dozens of other municipalities, told CNHI the counties that have made such moves have tried to structure them in ways that minimize the financial pain for the impacted employees.

The maximum weekly jobless benefit in New York is $504, and the federal stimulus legislation adds $600 per week through the end of July for those who employment was interrupted by the pandemic, Roemer noted. In some cases, depending on their county salary, workers could end up taking more money from the unemployment checks than they made while reporting to work.

Because of the social distance mandates implemented by the state, the counties had to reduce staffing within offices, requiring some people to stay home, where they were unable to perform tasks, Roemer pointed out.

For the time being, the furloughs are a "win win" for the counties and the workers who will be getting the extra benefits through May, June and July, he said. He also pointed out that, in what he called a compassionate move, all of the counties he interacts with have agreed to extend health insurance benefits for the impacted employees.

"I think everyone understands this is an unprecedented event and they have to do what they have to do to help close the gap," said Roemer, who has also been providing assistance to the New York State Association of Counties.

"These are stopgap measures designed to help counties brace for steep reductions in revenue from sales taxes, occupancy taxes and reductions from casino gaming revenue, as well as a potential 50 percent cut in state aid to localities," said Mark LaVigne, the association's deputy director.

The counties are seeking direct federal aid, saying they lack the resources needed for testing, tracing and emergency response coordination for the crisis.

NYSAC's latest economic analysis projects the counties outside of New York City will collectively lose more than $2 billion in revenue and fees due to the fiscal calamity.

“The situation we’re seeing is moving from grim to catastrophic,” said Stephen J. Acquario, the association's director.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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