Otsego County board votes to lay off 59 county workers

Robert Cairns | The Daily Star An entrance to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Oneonta is shown on Wednesday, May 20. 

The Otsego County Board of Representatives voted at a special meeting Wednesday, May 20, to lay off nearly 60 people, and the cuts will include closing the Oneonta satellite office of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The layoffs include several part-time positions, totaling 50.5 positions and 59 people, and will save the county about $900,000, according to County Treasurer Allen Ruffles. They will go into effect Monday, June 1.

The meeting, which lasted 4 hours and 40 minutes, was held via Zoom and broadcast on Facebook Live. It included about two hours of an executive session, in which the layoffs were discussed in detail.

“This is a responsible approach,” said Board Vice Chair Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, Milford, New Lisbon. “When a county is faced with a gap mid-year, we obviously can’t raise the tax levy to save ourselves. We have to cut back on our expenses then.

“This is a way forward,” she said. “It is not the only thing we are doing, but it is a first step.”

The layoffs and other budget cuts were necessary because of a huge decline in sales tax money during the first month of the “New York State On Pause” executive order during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the fear of losing state funding and bed tax revenue. Otsego County gets 55% of its revenues from sales tax revenue and state aid, almost 15% higher than the average county in New York, according to the New York State Association of Counties.

By comparison, neighboring counties Delaware and Schoharie get 32% and 35% of their revenue from sales taxes and state aid, respectively, according to NYSAC.

County Treasurer Allen Ruffles told the board it needed to close a budget gap of at least $12.5 million. He had previously told the board that NYSAC projections for “severe” losses for Otsego are as high as $21.5 million, and “severe” isn’t even the group’s worst-case scenario for the county.

“If we don’t do something now, the layoffs are going to be even worse in two months,” Ruffles said.

The layoffs passed by a weighted vote of 4,167 to 1,713, with four Democratic Representatives voting against them: Michelle Farwell, Andrew Stammel, Clark Oliver and Jill Basile.

Rep. Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, was at the meeting, but missed the vote while he was busy with a work seminar.

The members who voted against the layoffs said they understood the need for budget cuts, but were not satisfied the county had exhausted other cost-cutting measures. They pointed to a vote earlier in the meeting to buy a John Deere Excavator, for about $70,000, although that purchase involved some grant money earmarked for street and highway improvements, which cannot be used for salaries.

They also pointed to contracts the county has with outside agencies, including nearly $700,000 in bed tax money, which is contracted to go to the Destination Marketing Corporation of Otsego County.

“What I need to say to myself to support this,” Stammel said, “is this is truly a last resort. I’m not confident in saying that at this point.”

County Personnel Director Penny Gentile said the layoffs were Plan C, after previous plans had not produced enough funds to help the county make ends meet.

“I don’t know what we could have done differently,” she said.

Even the representatives who voted for the layoffs said they felt bad about the decision they were making.

Rep. Keith McCarty, R-Richfield, Springfield, said he was on the board about a decade ago when a budget crisis forced several layoffs, but “this is 100 times harder than that,” he said.

“I apologize to all the workers for this, and hope the federal government comes through (with a municipal stimulus) and we can get people back,” he said. “I think we need to do this, but I’m not happy about it.”

The layoffs include the three DMV clerks, a planner trainee, a paralegal, an auto mechanic, six part-time and two full time vehicle operators, an assistant public defender, two aging services specialists, a social welfare examiner and several clerks, typists and assistants.

The list was prepared in consultation with the county’s department heads, in discussions with Ruffles, Gentile and County Attorney Ellen Coccoma.

County Clerk Kathy Sinnott Gardner told the board there was no way she could keep the Oneonta DMV office open without the three clerk positions. She said the county only gets to keep 12.7% of the revenue the office generates, and the state has been moving revenue-generating services online anyway, decreasing the county’s take further.

Several of the Oneonta-area representatives asked if the Cooperstown office could be closed instead, because Oneonta is the population center of the county. However, Sinnott Gardner said because Cooperstown is the county seat and the Cooperstown office is in the county’s office building, it did not make sense to close that office.

The board had previously instituted a hiring freeze, a purchasing freeze and canceled several projects, including an $800,000 fire training center and more than $1 million in highway projects.

However, the board postponed a vote Wednesday that would have cut 15% from all contracts without outside vendors and would have saved about $170,000, and sent the bill back to the Administration Committee to be reworked.

Many of the members said they thought Destination Marketing, the tourism group that was created in 2014 when the county closed its own tourism agency, should have its contract reworked, because there will be little or no tourism this summer in the area.

Destination Marketing’s contract, which was ratified in November, pays the company part of the county’s bed taxes based on a three-year average of taxes on room and lodging rentals. The representatives said that meant the downturn in tourism would not affect the company’s revenues this year, while the county would be suffering from the lack of bed taxes and other revenue almost immediately.

The board also unanimously passed two late resolutions to help its employees, including those who were laid off.

One resolution offered health benefits to any qualified employee who retires between June 1 and Dec. 31. The other proclaimed the board’s willingness to offer health insurance and other benefits to the laid-off employees.

Coccoma said the board had offered those benefits to its employees through impact bargaining with its union, the Civil Service Employees Association, but during the meeting she got an email that she said indicated the union had rejected the offer.

Greg Klein, staff writer, can be reached at gklein@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7218.

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