9 ACCEPTED IMPERATIVE; 5 DIDN’T
Sometimes things have to be done. Imperatives, they’re called.
Such is the regrettable layoff of 59 county workers, a decision made May 20, a week ago Wednesday, by the Otsego County Board of Representatives. The layoffs go into effect Monday, June 8, the day county government is allowed to reopen.
The vote was 9-4-1, with the nays all Democrats: a veteran county rep, Andrew Stammell, Town of Oneonta, who should have known better, and three newcomers, second-term Michele Farwell, Morris, ditto, and newcomers Jill Basile and Clark Oliver, who are, well, newcomers facing probably the toughest decision they will make in their tenures.
Danny Lapin, also an Oneonta Democrat, had to leave halfway through the meeting – he was moderating a long-scheduled OCCA panel on adapting to a post-COVID-19 world. Asked, however, he said he would have voted nay, too. “I share the same concerns as Representatives Stammel and Farwell” – that the cuts made aren’t the best possible.
In listening to last week’s debate, and talking with county board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, and the vice chairman, Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, the cuts were made after an exhaustive review. Department heads were asked for guidance. Kennedy’s Administration Committee met for several hours Wednesday, May 13, then for five hours Friday, May 15, to make the final decision.
All board members were welcome at these meetings, and all were emailed voluminous information and data that were the basis for the decisions, said Bliss.
He added that many of the layoffs are people who were determined “non-essential” – a terrible term – and thus were prohibited from working anyway. Also, they will be laid off in time to partake of “enhanced” unemployment, an extra $600 a week. (A separate editorial, perhaps.)
Plus, the CSEA, at first obdurate, has since agreed to additional sweeteners from the county board: Those laid off may return with their seniority and vacation time intact, and can choose to pay and stay on the county medical insurance through the end of the year. Civil Service Law requires none of this, Personnel Officer Penny Gentile told the board.
All in all, that’s a pretty sweet layoff, if any layoff can be.
“When you’re talking about the solvency of the county,” said Bliss, “you’ve got to do what’s right.” Not to edit him, but they – the county reps – have to do the best they can, with the expectation any decision this complicated – paring 10 percent of a 500-person staff in two dozen departments – won’t be perfect.
As county Rep. Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus, said, quoting Teddy Roosevelt: “Sometimes the right decision and the hardest decision are the same.”
Here are a couple of ways to analyze the nay votes.
One, the Republicans, in alliance with the one Conservative, control the county board, and there’s a responsibility that comes with control. They were elected to, and arguably they made the best decision they could, after an open and inclusive process.
And it’s not over: There are more tough decisions ahead.
Two, through bipartisanship. That, along with “transparency,” are two terms that often emerge between Democratic lips. This was a time for bipartisanship.
It’s interesting that two Democrats – Andrew Marietta, Cooperstown/Town of Otsego, and Adrienne Martini, City of Oneonta – serve on the Admin Committee, went through the many hours of deliberations, and voted twice in favor of the layoffs, once in committee, then on the 20th.
County Rep. Dan Wilber, R-Burlington, then called for those who voted nay to come up with an alternate list, if they can do better. That’s fine in theory; but, frankly, the county board’s procedures were followed in getting to the 9-4-1 vote. It should stand, and likely will.
“We have to do everything we can to bring these who lost their jobs back,” said Lapin. By not making the tough decision, he, Stammel, Farwell, Basile and Oliver will have little leverage to accomplish that.
The decision will be made by those who took a deep breath and did what they had to.
Actually, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles has an idea that’s more interesting: Use this opportunity to review county government top to bottom, to see where efficiencies can be put in place.
For instance, bill paying and hiring is done across multiple departments. Why not centralize
those activities, bills in the Treasurer’s Office, hiring and personnel administration in a new Human Resources Department.
That would be the best of all worlds: Making layoffs as painless as possible, and streamlining county government so those who do return will reenter a leaner, more effective and efficient organization.
Everyone’s adapting to the “new normal,” and it isn’t going to be 100 percent comfortable for anyone.