County Legislature freezes hiring and spending in “these uncertain times”

The seal of Oswego County in the County Legislative chambers. Randy Pellis/Oswego County News

OSWEGO — A cautious county legislature froze hiring and spending at its May 14 meeting, worried COVID-19 has left the county in precarious financial shape.

Between an unknown, but certainly considerable, future expenditure to be spent fighting the disease, an unknown future reduction in sales tax revenue, and an uncertain reimbursement from state and federal governments, county legislators took a firmly conservative fiscal approach to a dilemma for which there are presently no solid, data-based answers. They cut 19 part-time court attendant positions, one Department of Social Services senior caseworker position, froze hiring for the remainder of 2020, took back $417,000 previously budgeted for Oswego County’s Industrial Development Agency, and prohibited most new non-COVID-related spending for the next two months. Only the legislature’s two Democrats, Marie Schadt and Thomas Drumm voted against cutting the senior caseworker’s position.

The salaries of two recently-appointed Department of Social Services employees, scheduled to replace two who are retiring, came under the microscope as Legislator Marie Schadt (D-Town of Oswego) sought to table the issue, siting the present fiscal uncertainty. Her motion was defeated and the salaries approved.

NY’s political primaries have been rescheduled to June 23 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order under which voting by absentee ballot will be an option. Oswego County’s Board of Elections will be mailing postage-paid absentee ballot applications to all eligible registered voters within the county. Voters who fill out and return those applications will be mailed appropriate absentee ballots along with another postage-paid return envelope. The county Board of Elections requested the legislature cover $60,000 of the anticipated postage costs involved in this process. The request was unanimously approved.

While $60,000 was spent on the one hand, more than double that came in on the other. The Oswego County Board of Elections was awarded a $151,608 grant through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act whose purpose is to provide reimbursement to Oswego County for expenditures made for the COVID-19 response. The grant is fully funded and requires no local matching funds. The legislature unanimously accepted the grant.

In the same manner, the legislature accepted a $68,684 grant from the NY State Office of the Aging to fund the county’s Office of the Aging’s Senior Nutrition Program.

The county’s hiring freeze for the remainder of this year was approved with the following exceptions:

Positions specifically mandated by state or federal law; positions for pandemic response activities, specifically Health Department, Emergency Management, Public Information division; positions ensuring public safety, specifically Sheriff’s Department and E-911; department heads or deputy department head (or equivalent senior management level); vacancies approved to fill prior to May 15; and individual vacancy requests approved by the Chairman of the Legislature.

Legislator Marie Schadt asked whether the legislature is considering the possibility of reducing the wages of department heads and its own members to 2019 levels in the near future.

Chairman James Weatherup responded, “Everything is on the table. We’re looking at a great number of things, but nothing necessarily has been decided. You raise a good point, and I would certainly enjoy and entertain talking with you.”

Republican Majority Leader Terry Wilbur reiterated those sentiments.

“I want to reassure everyone,” Wilbur said, “that the majority caucus (the Republicans) working with the minority caucus (the Democrats), everything is on the table. Discussions are ongoing. Some of these resolutions today are ones to start the process of slowing up the spending and figuring out exactly where we are with these uncertain times...We are very conscientious of what is going on, we have daily discussions, and Legislator Schadt, I look forward to further conversations with you and your caucus on this.”

With that, the legislature went on to pass a purchasing freeze through July 9 pertaining to almost everything but COVID-19 related procurements.

Specifically, “All departments must cease all purchases of discretionary nonpersonal service items, including new publications and memberships, supplies, travel, equipment, and contractual services that are not necessary to protect the health, safety and security of employees and citizens, and to ensure the continuation of high priority operations and services such as mandated functions, court-orders, law enforcement, solid waste management, and public works. Departments are to cease the initiation of new contracts or purchase orders for all but essential items.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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