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TRUMBULL COUNTY Officials warn about layoffs



Published: Thu, February 13, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Layoffs are expensive, too, jail officials say.

By STEPHEN SIFFand PEGGY SINKOVICH

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

WARREN -- For a county approaching bankruptcy, the biggest cost is for the people who lock up the criminals, patrol the streets, bill taxes and push brooms.

Trumbull County commissioners say they are searching for ways to bridge the gap between the $31 million they expect to collect in 2003 and the $39 million or so they have gotten used to spending.

Already, they have drained the water coolers and threatened to unplug employee cell phones. There are plenty of small ways to cut costs, but commissioners have been clear that they are also looking at the big one -- layoffs.

About 70 percent of the money commissioners spent on general expenses last year was for salaries and benefits for roughly 450 county employees. That's $27 million for salaries, benefits and retirement for the men and women who work for the sheriff, auditor, recorder, treasurer and in the courts and other, more obscure departments such as the coroner and veterans' services commission.

The county engineer and health department, however, are not funded through the commissioners and will not be directly affected by the county's financial woes.

Word to come soon

Commissioners are expected to soon inform department heads and elected officials how much less money they can expect to receive this year. And even as the commissioners begin rallying support for a sales tax increase, they have warned that layoffs could be soon.

"We are still going to have to cut costs," said Commissioner Michael O'Brien. O'Brien says he favors a 0.5-percent sales tax increase, which would raise an additional $6 million or $7 million a year.

Not only is this amount less than the projected shortfall, but the county won't be able to collect the full amount in 2003 because it takes months to put a tax in place.

"A half-percent will let us live with some cuts," he said.

After county revenue plummeted four years ago, with the fulfillment of Commissioner James G. Tsagaris' campaign promise to reduce the sales tax from 0.75 percent to 0.5 percent, county expenditures continued to rise at a predictable level of a few million dollars a year.

Much of the increase was because of personnel costs, the records show. The slight increase in the number of workers was added with raises of about 3 percent to 4 percent a year and rapidly escalating health-care costs. Since 1999, the cost of paying, insuring and retiring the county's work force has increased by 36 percent, or $7.3 million.

"The raw salaries have not increased drastically at all," said James Keating, the county's director of human resources. "But health care has seen a big hike."

Rising health-care bills

Since 1999, the health-care bill for employees has increased by 60 percent or $3.2 million. Over the same period, health-care costs in the public sector, where the plans are typically less generous, increased by 43 percent, Keating said.

He said the commissioners took a step toward reducing this cost earlier this year, when they began pushing employees onto a less-generous insurance plan, and requiring the workers to pay for part of it.

Layoffs appear to be a straightforward way to reduce costs, but there also is a cost for cutting payroll.

The county would be responsible for paying all of the unemployment benefits of laid-off employees. That means it still would have to pay a substantial fraction of their salary for the first 26 weeks they are out of work, said Ernie Cook, chief of jail operations.

As the biggest and most expensive department within the county, the sheriff's department could expect to bear the brunt of layoffs if they take place.

Layoffs would probably result in closing the portion of the jail where federal inmates are held, even though holding federal inmates brings $1 million profit a year for the county, Cook said.

As well, seniority rules and grant regulations would probably result in the loss of deputies whose salaries are paid for by grants first, even though their departure won't directly save the county money.

The impact might not be felt by residents immediately, "but in the long run, they probably will," said Sheriff Thomas Altiere.

sinkovich@vindy.comsiff@vindy.com




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