LYONS — Facing a budget gap of $10 million or more, the Wayne County Board of Supervisors has agreed to extend a hiring freeze the administration said has already saved over $3 million.
A resolution passed at its Tuesday meeting, held remotely under the Zoom video conferencing application, extends a hiring freeze instituted by County Administrator Rick House following the establishment of a state of emergency first declared March 15 and extended to May 10.
That freeze is now extended to the end of 2021.
A 90-day hiring freeze was instituted last year, said House, resulting in 49 full-time positions being left vacant. That saved the county $3.5 million, he said.
House said the goal is to leave about 75 positions unfilled this year and save $5.1 million.
“I’m going to work toward the goal,” said House. “I’m not saying I’m going to get to 75.”
He said the median wage and benefits package for a county worker is $68,000 a year.
The question before the county, said House, is whether the typical number of vacancies will occur, given a severely damaged economy due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set in motion a phased business reopening plan to bring more people back into the workforce, but most economists think an economic recovery will be a slow one.
As it is, the county projects a $5 million loss in sales tax revenues and an additional $5 million loss in government aid and grants for an estimated gap of $10 million. That number could rise to nearly $15 million, House warns.
“I’ve got to close that gap,” said House. “The good news is we are healthy for 2020.”
That health comes from the continuing savings of the hiring freeze and ample reserves, which currently total about $52 million. House doesn’t know how much of those reserve funds will be needed to help close 2020’s gap, but that it will be “in the millions.”
While counties with populations over 500,000 got millions in direct aid from the federal government under emergency aid passed by Congress this spring, for the most part, smaller counties such as Wayne did not.
“We suffer the same shortfalls as the larger counties,” House said, adding that the latest bill in Congress would provide direct aid to smaller counties.
Without knowing how much that aid will be, the county is addressing the gap with the hiring freeze, department cost reductions, delaying some capital projects and drawing on reserve funds, said House.
The five-year goal, said House, is a 20 percent reduction in the county workforce.
He noted that the hiring freeze is not absolute. Under the resolution passed unanimously by the supervisors Tuesday, a department head or an elected official requesting to create a new or fill a vacant position must document that the requested position is “critical to the performance of a mandated service needed to be provided by the department,” that the department head or elected official must document that “all reasonable alternatives to creating a new or filling a vacant position have been considered, including but not limited to job sharing, consolidation, shared services, contractual services or other efficiencies.”
In essence, said House, the question is: “Is it critical to the operation that this position must be filled?”
House said reserve funds don’t need to be allocated yet.
“We have the money to pay the bills right now,” he said. “We’re not in fiscal distress.”
The goal, said House, is to reduce costs and avoid layoffs. However, the administrator expects revenue issues to move well into 2021, and that budgeting for the coming year will take on an even more conservative approach to spending.