LOCKPORT – Over bitter protests from union workers, the Niagara County Legislature passed a 2014 county budget with raises for most department heads and nonunion employees but no raises for union employees.
The $333 million spending plan reduces the amount to be collected in property taxes by one-half of a percent.
Thirty-five nonunion employees, including County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz and his top department heads, will receive raises above the 2 percent standard that had been announced when the budget was submitted to the Legislature last month.
But for the third consecutive year, the budget denies annual “step increases” for most union employees.
“Restore the integrity of this body. Keep promises. Show leadership,” demanded William C. Rutland, president of the county’s blue-collar union. “We are not in a fiscal crisis. We have surplus money.”
The budget appropriated $12.45 million in surplus funds, which is all the county could use under its decade-old policy of keeping at least 6 percent of the previous year’s budget in the bank.
Corrections Officer Traci N. Haner said the county is trying “to force concessions in benefits that have taken decades to achieve.”
Meanwhile, Haner said, “raises were given to a favored few.”
Rutland said the unions were told two years ago that the steps were stopped to avoid layoffs. “We were lied to. We were duped,” he said.
“They’re being held hostage for concessions,” said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.
The Democratic minority offered 19 budget amendments, while the Republican majority submitted none.
All of the Democratic offerings, like those to eliminate patronage jobs such as the Legislature clerk, county auditor and public information officer, failed on 11-3 party-line votes. The GOP lawmakers, one of whom was absent, also rejected a Democratic proposal to limit all nonunion raises to 2 percent. “There are people who shouldn’t be getting 10 percent raises, people who shouldn’t be getting 8 percent raises, at a time when we’re telling our union employees they can’t get raises,” Virtuoso said.
Also defeated was a Democratic proposal to make part-time attorneys and legislators pay 25 percent of their health insurance premiums. The attorneys, like most nonunion employees, will pay 10 percent as of July 1. The legislators already are paying 20 percent.
Some nonunion employees, such as assistant district attorneys, will pay 10 percent starting Jan. 1. Four department heads who are not receiving pay raises in 2014 won’t pay until 2015.
However, the Legislature put off action on a change in the retirement health insurance structure, which would have done away with fully paid health insurance for nonunion employees hired in 2009 or later, while increasing the required contribution for all others.
Legislator Paul B. Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, said that idea will be considered in the coming year.
Budget Director Daniel R. Huntington strongly supported the plan.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that you pay 10 percent while you’re active, and when you retire, you don’t pay anything,” Huntington said.
He said the county’s most expensive health option, which will be taken away from retirees as of 2015, costs $14,000 a year for family coverage and rises by about 8 percent a year.
“Every nine years, it’s going to double. We’ve got to do something about health insurance,” Huntington said. “It can’t be free.”