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Impending layoffs unnerve Pasco County employees

SHADY HILLS — One day after the release of a county budget that promised layoffs, county administrators heard from workers stressed out over their uncertain prospects.

How will seniority play into layoff decisions? Why not just give pay cuts? Why were some departments hit worse than others? When will we know?

Top administrators addressed hundreds of county workers, some still in their uniforms and work boots, Wednesday at Bishop McLaughlin High School.

County commissioners, facing an overall budget deficit of $30 million, now have in their hands a spending plan that puts 259 positions on the chopping block, half of them filled. Built into the budget is $13.2 million in undesignated money that could be used to restore some of those positions. That money is available only if commissioners go with a higher property tax rate that would add about $84 to the average homeowner's tax bill. Even with that possibility, administrators emphasized layoffs were a certainty for a small percentage of the 2,160 employees. "We've never really had to look at laying off employees," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "And believe me, that's very hurtful."

Gallagher said he was "eternally hopeful" that commissioners would get enough public support for the higher tax rate "to do the right thing." (The rate, known as the "rolled back rate" is higher to compensate for a reduction in taxable property values. Overall, it raises the same amount of property taxes as the current year.)

Employees sat through the same presentation of dismal financial projections that administrators have given to county commissioners: Voter-approved property tax legislation and crashing real estate values wiping out the past seven years worth of new construction. Record foreclosures. Unemployment over 10 percent.

Administrators told employees that furloughs, pay cuts, reduced work hours, unpaid holidays and reduced sick leave and vacation time were not considered sustainable in the long term, in part because the 2011 fiscal year is expected to be as bad as next year.

Cuts are slated for departments ranging from the library to code enforcement to parks and recreation to fire services. But Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker said an announcement on exactly what positions will be cut won't come until September, after commissioners make their decision. Department officials also are re-evaluating the most appropriate number of positions for their section.

Administrators said workers in positions that were cut could apply for other vacancies and would be eligible for recall to county service for up to one year if their old position is restored.

Laid-off employees will receive an assistance package, including information on job placement, financial assistance and social services. They will also be eligible for a program that provides up to six sessions of counseling services, related to stress, anger management, financial issues and drug and alcohol abuse. Gallagher said that because he wants all laid-off employees to get a 30-day notice, the last day for many might not be until October, in the next fiscal year. Some of the $13.2 million could be used to pay those costs.

Outside the meeting, a few employees took a smoke break. They did not want their names or departments published for fear of jeopardizing their jobs.

"I know two people that have been out of work for two years and they're looking for jobs every single day and they can't find one," said one woman. "I'd be willing to take a 5 percent pay cut if I could keep my job."

In the meantime, their fate will be spelled out in a County Commission meeting in September.

Impending layoffs unnerve Pasco County employees 07/15/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 10:58pm]
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