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2/11/2009
Coons proposes 26 unpaid days off, pay freezes - News Journal

Councilman Weiner: “If we expect to ask the taxpayers to support a tax increase, we have to make certain that we as a county workforce are sharing in the pain,”

BY ANGIE BASIOUNY • THE NEWS JOURNAL • FEBRUARY 11, 2009

New Castle County workers would take 26 days of unpaid leave and see their pay frozen under a proposal by County Executive Chris Coons to help close a $40 million budget gap.

If the six unions that make up most of the work force do not agree to the plan, the county will begin layoffs in the coming fiscal year.

"I have worked very hard on your behalf to avoid a budget situation where a reduction in the county workforce is necessary," Coons said in a letter sent Monday to the county's 1,478 employees.

"However, as our financial condition and the local economy continues to decline, I feel I have no choice but to ask for these significant concessions ... in order to delay harder decisions about the future."

Union leaders have until Tuesday to decide. The deadline is one month before Coons is set to unveil his recommended budget.

The involuntary furloughs and pay freezes will save about $6.5 million. That savings would be combined with budget cuts of 8 percent from each county department to reduce the deficit by half and avoid layoffs, according to Coons' letter.

"If these proposals are accepted by the workforce, I will be able to present County Council with a budget that does not lay off current county employees," he wrote.

Coons needs union approval because the plan would violate labor union agreements that are already in place. Officials have not determined the number of employees who would be laid off if the plan does not go through.

The announcement sent shock waves through the work force Tuesday, and several union leaders met informally to share information and make sure their members were fully aware of the proposal.

Ken Dunn, a paramedic who is president of the emergency services workers union, said union leaders are discussing the options and will have an answer for Coons by Tuesday. He declined to comment further.

A 'dangerous' proposal
Joe Lavelle, president of the Fraternal Order of Police No. 5, said he thinks Coons' proposal is "dangerous" for the 350 patrol officers on the county police force and to the public they protect.

"Furloughing each officer 24 days throughout the year is like laying off 23 police officers," he said.

"Armed confrontations with suspects are on the rise and I've never, in 20 years, seen this many police-related shootings."

Police Chief Rick Gregory said he is working out details on how to minimize the effect of furloughs on public safety. On furlough days, the number of patrol officers would be maintained by pulling in officers from non-patrol units such as special operations.

"Our primary focus is on patrol," Gregory said.

The county's overall furlough plan includes:

• Converting 14 paid holidays a year to unpaid days for the next fiscal year, which is July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010.

• Adding 10 unpaid days off in the next fiscal year. On those dates, which have not been decided, government would shut down except for public safety and other essential personnel.

• Converting two holidays this fiscal year – Good Friday and Memorial Day – to unpaid days.

• Freezing step pay increases.

The plan applies to non-union employees and Coons’ executive staff, though it is unclear whether it would include the 13-member council and its staff.

For the top tier of county leaders, the furloughs would be added to a 7 percent pay reduction that Coons imposed on them in December. Coons included himself in that pay cut. His yearly salary is $126,141, a figure set by the state.

Mixed reaction from council
Several council members reacted Tuesday with mixed emotions, saying the furlough plan illustrates how deeply the recession is hitting governments.

Councilman Timothy Sheldon, D-9th District, works as a bricklayer’s union agent, and said he understands employees won’t be happy. But he believes furloughs are a better option than layoffs.

“I’d rather have a guy screaming at me while he’s cashing his paycheck than seeing him on the unemployment line,” Sheldon said.

New Castle County is the second-largest government in Delaware after the state, but it is the first to put the discussion of layoffs and involuntary furloughs on the table.

Gov. Jack Markell has warned about tough decisions ahead as the state tries to close its $606 million deficit. But far from predicting mass terminations, the governor has said laying off 1,000 state employees would save only $50 million, which is not enough to have a significant impact, and furloughs would accomplish even less.

In Sussex County, workers have been asked to volunteer for up to five days of unpaid leave.

$40 million budget shortfall
New Castle County’s projected $40 million budget shortfall is due mostly to a sharp decline in real estate transfer taxes as the housing market has softened. The tax was the second-largest source of income for the county.

To close the gap, Coons has been spending down the government’s cash reserve while implementing a series of cuts.

He trimmed $5 million from the budget in November by freezing hiring, forbidding nonessential overtime, reducing capital spending, limiting travel and cutting other expenses.

He followed in December with more than 20 across-the-board cuts designed to save another $2.5 million in the current fiscal year and $5 million in subsequent years.

Those cuts included laying off 18 part-time employees, closing libraries on Thursday evenings and Sundays and reducing maintenance on parks and athletic fields.

Coons has said residents should expect a property tax increase in the next fiscal year. He has not indicated the size of the increase, which will be revealed in his budget address March 17.

The county raised taxes by 5 percent in 2006 and by 17.5 percent in 2007.
Councilman Robert Weiner, R-2nd District, said the furlough plan spreads the burden more fairly.

“If we expect to ask the taxpayers to support a tax increase, we have to make certain that we as a county workforce are sharing in the pain,” he said.

Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

FURLOUGH DAYS
New Castle County government observes 14 paid holidays a year. Under the proposal, county workers would take the days off unpaid, along with 10 more unpaid days, for a total of 24 furlough days in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The 2010 holidays are:
Jan. 1 -- New Year's Day
Jan. 18 -- Martin Luther King Jr. birthday
Feb. 1 -- Lincoln's birthday
Feb. 15 -- Washington's birthday
April 9 -- Good Friday
May 24 -- Memorial Day
July 4 -- Independence Day
Sept. 6 -- Labor Day
Oct. 11 -- Columbus Day
Nov. 10 -- Veterans Day
Nov. 26 -- Thanksgiving Day
Nov. 27 -- Friday after Thanksgiving
Dec. 24 -- half-day Christmas Eve
Dec. 25 -- Christmas Two holidays in this fiscal year also would be unpaid for a total of 26.

Here's how the furlough days in the next fiscal year will affect the paychecks of county workers:
Workers making a salary of $30,000 would lose $2,769 for a total of $27,231.
Workers making a salary of $60,000 would lose $5,538 for a total of $54,462.

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