LETTER from ANDREW STAMMEL
To the Editor:
Last week, the Otsego County Board of Represent-atives made the tragic decision to terminate 59 employees, amounting to hundreds of years of institutional knowledge and public service.
While the euphemism “layoff” continues to be used, it doesn’t accurately reflect what occurred. These jobs have been eliminated. To return, multiple committees and the full board would need to re-create, fund and then fill these jobs; an unlikely prospect for the foreseeable future.
It is unfortunate that this newspaper cavalierly glossed over these individuals, some with decades of service, and instead cynically focused on the perceived gain or loss of “clout” by politicians who voted for it.
This was by far the most difficult vote any representative has taken and each tried to do what our conscience and judgment told us was right. I don’t believe politics or clout factored into this decision for my colleagues – I know it didn’t for me. While we can disagree on the merits of this vote, we all acknowledge the devastation of overturning the lives of 59 families in our community.
Budget decisions the county board makes in any given year reflect our values and priorities and also have lasting impacts on future budget years. In December 2018, this paper printed a letter of mine in which I expressed concern that the county board was voting to approve a half-million dollar raise for management, including a raise for themselves of nearly 30 percent. These votes took place just weeks after the board endorsed the county treasurer’s plan to accelerate the tax foreclosure process on local struggling homeowners.
In addition to my concern that these actions reflected a tendency of the board to prop up those with power while making it harder for those struggling, the letter also warned about timing.
I wrote, “Economic storm clouds may be gathering. The county is disproportionately reliant on bed and sales taxes, which track volatile consumer spending. It appears the stock market is set for its worst year since 2008 and economists predict a recession within two years. These raises are essentially locked into future budgets. When the economy falters, the board will need to raise taxes or cut services.”
While no one expected the suddenness or magnitude of the current recession, clairvoyance is not required to predict a recession. All economic expansions eventually come to an end
at some point. The choices we make in the good times will reverberate when hard times come.
Last week I stated that while job cuts may become necessary, I could only vote for them if they were strategic and a last resort. Neither factor was present at the time of the vote. Looking only at the departments reporting to my committee, it is counterproductive to cut a significant proportion of employees working on issues of public health and mental health/addiction during a time of pandemic and rising community trauma. Some of these employees even generate revenue for the budget, more than paying for the expense of their position.
As evidence that the job cuts were not a last resort, we pointed to the over $1.1 million being funneled to external agencies and semi-private entities. While the Administration Committee voted to cut 59 jobs, amounting to 25 percent of some departments, it only voted to cut by 15 percent payments to agencies doing work outside the county’s core mission. Included in this was over $600,000 to a private tourism agency advertising for a largely non-existent tourism season. This agency is supposedly supported through the County’s bed tax. With a loss of 70 percent of bed tax, how can we only cut our payment by 15 percent? These concerns and others were brought up repeatedly throughout the decision-making process and should have been resolved adequately prior to terminating employees.
It is on all Otsego County residents, both elected officials and voters, to think about what kind of government we want. In recent decades, we’ve greatly reduced the number of our neighbors working locally in public service, while at the same time transferring millions of taxpayer monies to out of town consultants and private corporations and agencies. COVID-19 has only accelerated this trend.
Do we continue further down this road? It may result in not just job losses for our neighbors but also valuable losses in services, as has been evidenced by the County Clerk’s recent closure of the Oneonta DMV. Through your voice and your vote, let your county know what kind of government you want to see. In the meantime, let’s all support our loved ones and community during this difficult time.