CANANDAIGUA — Nearly 1,400 years of work experience will be walking out the doors of Ontario County government and other county departments by the end of the month.
The reason is a retirement incentive program offered by the county, which is faced with a projected shortfall of $17-20 million this year. Brian Young, interim county administrator, said the move is expected to save about $4 million in payroll costs next year.
“The retirement incentive will really pay off in 2021,” he said. “We wanted to avoid laying off employees, as other counties have done.”
The shortfall is largely the result of a severe decline in sales-tax revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That led to the shutdown of numerous businesses in the county, including Eastview Mall.
“Eastview Mall is a huge economic driver for us,” Young said.
The mall reopened in July, with reduced hours and COVID-19 protocols, but it hasn’t been business as usual there and at other businesses. Young said sales-tax revenue in July was down 18% from July 2019, and August revenue was down 12.5% from the year before.
“Sales-tax revenue is not coming back as quickly as we hoped,” he said.
Fifty county employees took advantage of the retirement incentive, and many had 30-plus years of experience. They will be leaving before the end of September.
Young said employees had to be eligible for the state retirement system to be approved at the county level. He added that more than 50 employees applied for the program, but some were denied because they were not eligible or due to the impact on their department.
“We asked the department heads in July to tell us how many positions they can live without. We did not ask people to retire and did not force anyone out,” Young said. “That many retirements all at once is a big loss for our departments and requires remaining employees to take on the extra workload.”
Under the program, the county will give employees $1,000 for each year of employment; it will go toward a health care reimbursement account. Young said for longtime employees, that should bridge the gap until they can start getting Medicare.
Among the department heads retiring are Diane Johnston, director of community mental health, who has been a county employee for 32 years. Also retiring is Robin Johnson, director of real property tax, who has 29 years of experience.
Johnson is being replaced by Donna LaPlant, who was deputy director of real property tax. Johnston is being replaced by Jessica Mitchell, an associate psychologist in the mental health office.
Young said those appointments were part of succession planning by those departments. He added that while the jobs of other retirees may be filled with current employees, the 50 full-time equivalent positions will be left vacant until at least the end of 2021.
Young added that much of the county’s budget picture is dependent on cuts in state reimbursement for county programs, which could range from 20 to 50 percent.
“That is the big wild card,” he said. “We get about $27 million per year in state reimbursement for social services ... and we also get funds for mental health, public health, Office for the Aging, public works and more. The state is not doing well financially either, so we don’t expect a lot to come back.”
In another cost-cutting measure, county department heads are being asked to reduce their operating expenses by at least 5 percent. Department budget requests will be reviewed soon by the county Board of Supervisors’ Ways and Means Committee.
Young stopped short of saying the board will sign off on a property tax rate hike, which has been approximately $6.30 per $1,000 of assessed value for many years.
“I don’t know about raising taxes. No elected official wants to raise taxes, and we will do our best to keep the tax rate flat,” he said. “You have to remember that people are not working.”