Local officials below the county level aren’t saying much publicly about the trend-setting — some say nickel-and-diming — union contract the Ulster County executive announced last week. Privately, they will be. Wrestling with similar issues, town supervisors, mayors and school superintendents need only reference the bare-bones contract Mike Hein negotiated. Not too many years ago, such an agreement would have had union workers storming the county office building. These are different times.
To refresh memories, the old contract expired in 2010. Hein offered, and union leaders sent to their membership, a contract that provides for no raises for 2011 and 2012 with 1.75 percent increases in 2013 and 2 percent in 2014. New workers will pay 20 percent of their health insurance. Old hands will pay the current rate, 15 percent.
The 1,300-member CSEA unit will vote on the contract next Monday. It will pass because union workers, as their leadership has stated, understand economics. There is a new game in town: take it or leave it.
The Hein contract would seem just what the doctor ordered for the taxpayers who pay the taxes to pay the workers. Many working taxpayers have not had raises in years, if they have jobs at all. In hard times, we hunker down, take what we can get and hope for an upturn. Recent economic news fromWashingtonsuggests a flickering light at the end of that tunnel.
Hein, for his part, set the tone for negotiations from the get-go. In recommending elimination of some 300 jobs in his last two budgets, Hein made it abundantly clear he would cut any job in any department in pursuit of minimal tax increases.
The county nursing home in Kingston, with its 300 union members, was once a bastion of CSEA strength. No more. The nursing home, Hein declared and the legislature ultimately agreed, was a drag on county finances. By extension, so are workers officials say the county can no longer afford.
The county legislature, which played no part in contract negotiations — its efforts to secure a seat at the table were firmly rebuffed by the executive — will go along with this contract. Like the workers, it really has no choice if the goal is a balanced budget.
There was a time when public union workers had real clout, when legislators — before the county executive system took effect in 2009 — shook in their boots at the prospect of labor unrest. Recall the union march on the county office building some 10 years ago led by a 15-foot inflated rat. They called it Dan, after then-chairman Dan Alfonso, supposedly a friend of labor. Ah, the good old days. Gone forever.
Who can forget then-legislator Sue Cummings of Ellenville gazing down on the CSEA rally from her perch on the sixth floor of the county office building and murmuring, she thought to herself, “If these people don’t like their jobs, why don’t they get a job somewhere else?” Unfortunately for Cummings, the remark was overheard by union zealot Frank Dart and, to her ultimate embarrassment, broadly broadcast. Ah, the good old days.
Whither this goes nobody knows. Hein says he has never spoken to a target number for what he considers right-sized government. He took office in 2009 with something over 1,800 county employees, and has since reduced that by about 135 through early retirements, attrition and forced layoffs. The trend, by no means confined to county government, is obvious.
Andrew Cuomo’s public-relations staffers have denied putting words in praise of the governor in the mouths of local officials, but to those who read more than one newspaper from at least 50 miles away it sure looks like it.
The Wall Street Journal reports the identical comment, to wit: Cuomo has “restored a sense of pride and credibility in New York State government,” voiced by officials ranging from town supervisors to college presidents. (That restoration statement might be news to a lot of New Yorkers.)
Cuomo flacks called it “standard operating practice at any level of government.” No, it’s not. It’s pure deception, yet another reason to deep-six political press releases.
No Net news
Faced with what looks like a 21 percent increase in Safety Net expenses next year, Ulster County town supervisors are apparently prepared to allow the county executive to recommend what he calls “an equitable solution” in his 2013 county budget, due for release in October. “We’re divided, as you well know,” Shawangunk Supervisor John Valk, head of the supervisors and mayors association, said. “Some want county takeover, some [most] don’t. We will not take a vote against any of our members.”
A legislative proposal to swap sales-tax receipts for Safety Net costs hasn’t gotten traction, leaving a solution to the tender mercies of the executive.