Albany County Executive Mike Breslin is putting 1,400 county employees on furlough in an attempt to help close the county’s $20.5 million budget gap. The employees are from all but two of the 21 county departments that Breslin’s office oversees. The Nursing Home and Sewer District departments are being spared due to the nature of their duties.
Breslin’s plan calls for each of the 21 departments to be closed the fourth Friday of every month starting in August. According to Mary Duryea, communications director for the executive, this will amount to $1.4 million in savings in 2009. She said the budget deficit is due mainly to a sharp loss in sales-tax revenue that the county has suffered.
“This is one of the largest midyear budget gaps we’ve ever seen, so we are looking at every possible action we can take in order to close this gap,” said Duryea. “The furloughs are just one part of our plan.”
Breslin is calling upon other county departments not under his control to follow suit. Of these six departments under separately elected officials, only Albany County Clerk Thomas Clingan has agreed to furlough his employees.
“The county is obviously having serious financial difficulties, and I think that’s reflected by the county executive’s decision to put almost all of the county workforce on a five-day furlough from now till the end of the year,” said Clingan.
He said that the furloughs in his department will generate $16,800 in savings, about half of one full-time employee’s annual salary.
Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners is among those resisting Breslin’s push for furloughs, calling them financially unnecessary.
“The furlough is something that I think is just a plain bad idea,” said Conners, adding that the county hasn’t explored all its options and that there are other ways to save money. He said a letter sent from his office to Breslin’s office detailing key ways that the county could save money was ignored because it didn’t line up with what Breslin wanted to do.
Conners also said that his office found that the $20.5 million dollar budget gap overstated the amount of interest revenue lost in 2009 by about $1.5 million—a point that, according to Conners, was also ignored by Breslin’s office and the Department of Management and Budget.
Shawn Morse (D-Cohoes) agreed with Conners’ take on the situation.
“Before we take steps to furlough county employees, we need to be able to confidently assure them that we looked under every rock for savings,” said Morse in a press release that spoke out against Breslin’s plan.
Morse also said that initiatives he offered to the county were largely ignored, including a Canadian drug plan that he said has already been enacted with success in Schenectady and Rensselaer counties. Morse introduced the legislation more than four years ago, and it is now approved by the legislature.
Why hasn’t it been signed into law? “I asked that question five times with no response,” said Morse.
Morse mentioned other ways the county could avoid furloughing its employees.
“We have a fund balance of over $30 million. We have a Canadian drug plan that could save millions of dollars. We have county departments that have made concessions to give back money to ease the burden. We have an accounting error of about a million-and-a-half-dollars,” said Morse. “I think, right now, we have not done enough to look at every single item.”
Both Morse and Conners have also questioned the legality of imposing furloughs on county employees, saying that, according to their reading of the county charter, the county executive may propose a plan to furlough employees, but in order for it to be enforced, it must be passed by the legislature.
Morse raised another similar concern that the county could be opening itself up to increased costs in the form of litigation fees if the public employee’s unions decide to pursue the matter in court.
However, Duryea said that the executive’s office has spoken to its attorney, Craig Denning, and believes that it is within its bounds to institute the furloughs.
Clingan dismissed Conners’ concerns.
“I don’t think any of the short-term measures that the county comptroller has proposed will do the trick,” said Clingan.
According to a document released Wednesday by the county executive’s office, if the other departments not under Breslin’s control were to participate in the furlough program, an additional $116,800 could be saved.
Clingan said that there is a need for everyone to pull together and shoulder the burden of the financial crisis. “I’m very pleased with how well people are participating in this and understanding that we’re doing this in order to save the jobs of fellow county employees.”
Clingan is calling for more solidarity in county government, specifically in the offices not overseen by Breslin, he said. “It is disappointing that some of the elected officials have chosen not to participate in helping us solve this problem.”