We sat down with Westchester County’s Chief Operating Officer Attorney Kevin Plunkett in his Tarrytown home. It was later in the evening and even though he had experienced another intense day on the job, Plunkett’s “Alpha type” energy carried the interview. When asked what the difference has been since January 1, he smiled and mentioned that he has gone from representing a number of clients with a few problems each to representing one client with a number of problems.
“When County Executive Rob Astorino and I took office at the beginning of the year we had a belief that the deficit the County was facing in the 2111 budget would be approximately $60,000,000. We’ve subsequently had a review by our new budget director and our finance commissioner and we’ve learned that the budget deficit could actually be $166,000,000. So, it’s over $100,000,000 more than what we expected when we took office,” he said. That potential gap in expectations versus reality came from looking at potential revenue sources within the County. “We realized that they weren’t as strong as the projections had been,” Plunkett added. There had been a number of “one shot” revenue sources from New York State and the Federal Government that were not going to be repeated in upcoming budget year. So on one side of the ledger monies have been removed, however, on the expense side of the same ledger costs have been driven up dramatically. “We are facing a very daunting budget deficit,” he said.
The logical question would be and is: How will the County cope with dwindling revenues while operating a government with a 1.8 billion dollar operating expense? First and often repeated, Plunkett said that County Executive Rob Astorino would honor his campaign pledge and not raise taxes. “We are focusing on the cost of health benefits for the 5,600 employees of Westchester County. Nobody contributes to their health insurance premium payments. “We have drafted a law that was sent to the County Board of Legislators that would only impact non-union employees which total approximately 600 out of the 5,600. We are seeking to have a 15% contribution made by those non-union workers to be enacted immediately. The Board has resisted that,” Plunkett said.
With regard to the 5,000 union employees that span across approximately thirty departments, County leaders have been in dialogue with each as contracts come up for renewal. “We would like the unions to cooperate in health benefit contributions as well and work with us on reasonable salary increments. The CSEA (Civil Service Employees Association) union’s contract is up in 2111 and we hope they will consider reopening the contract and addressing these important issues with us. If not, our only option will be layoffs and we don’t want to do that,” he noted. In addition to health care benefits, the issue of pension benefits is leaving a mark on the County as well. “We also need to address retirement benefits,” he added. The CSEA union is the biggest, but there are other unions as well within Westchester County government. The Corrections Department, the Police Department (PBA), the Teamsters, the District Attorney’s Office and the Superior Court Officers Association.
When asked what departments were facing immediate cuts in funding, Plunkett answered, “The express bus to New York City is one. In social services we looked at ways to reduce expenses without affecting the core mission of the agency. We have come up with approximately 5.8 million dollars in savings for the remainder of this year. Of course we are getting ‘push-back’ because certain people feel that they should be exempt from spending reductions. Our Commissioner, however, has made it clear to us that these cutbacks in spending will not affect the quality of services offered,” Plunkett said. The County has also approached a number of outside agencies that they do business with. “We have asked these agencies to reduce their fees by 10%, and we have also asked our own Commissioners to give us 10% reductions in their departments as well, for immediate savings. We feel we can generate another million dollars of savings for next year with these measures,” he said. “The times are tough and we need to be in this together,” he added.
Plunkett was the first to iterate that no one in the County Government takes any pleasure in doing these kinds of cost reductions, but that the reality they face is daunting. “If we can’t close this 2111 budget deficit we may need to lay people off. We will not raise taxes in Westchester County, and that means there are a lot of other areas that we will address in closing this budget gap.”
Westchester County’s newly- elected Executive Rob Astorino has sent a message more than once regarding governance. He and his colleagues are taking a hard look at how the structure of government works, including the structure of its departments and programs, to see how they can bring it back to something that is manageable and affordable.
Plunkett believes that this inventory should be happening in every school district and community, as well as throughout New York State. “All municipalities are struggling in today’s world,” he concluded.