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Niagara County Courthouse in Lockport

Democrats in the Niagara County Legislature are calling for a hiring freeze due to anticipated revenue shortfalls through the remainder of 2020.

A resolution, sponsored by Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso and fellow Democrats Anita Mullane, Mark Grozio and Christopher Robins, suggests the hiring freeze should be imposed "immediately."

The measure seeks to bar the filling of any vacant county position unless it can be justified by the head of the department where the position is available as well as County Manager Richard Updegrove. In addition, vacant positions could not be filled without approval from the home committee and members of the county's administration committee. 

"I'm trying to be a little proactive here," Virtuoso said. "I know the budget is going to be pretty tough. I'm just saying, 'let's take a look at these.' We are elected to manage a county government and I think that this is the time that we have to put our skills to work."

Virtuoso said the county has filled 114 positions since March, including most recently the deputy county clerk position vacated by the retirement of longtime deputy clerk Wendy Roberson. Virtuoso said, under the circumstances facing the county right now, the position - which was filled with the appointment of former North Tonawanda Clerk/Treasurer Matt Parrish - could have remained unfilled at least until the financial picture cleared up a bit. 

"They keep filling positions," he said. "I feel we should be evaluating every position right now to see if whether we can survive until the end of the year without them. If we don't have to fill a position, why fill it? Let's wait until next year to fill it."

Counties across New York are expecting to see a 20 percent reduction in the financial support from the state. The decrease in state assistance comes as counties and other local governments are dealing with significant declines in revenue in other areas, including sales and bed taxes and fees for things like permits and licenses. 

The New York State Association of Counties, of which Niagara County is a member, has recommended 80 moves it would like the Cuomo administration to make in an effort to help cushion the post-pandemic economic blow. 

One of the recommendations calls for the state to temporarily grant counties the ability to exceed the state tax cap without penalty. Other items seek state permission to allow for greater flexibility when it comes to increasing sales sales, mortgage recording and occupancy taxes. 

Updegrove said the county has taken steps to curtail costs since the pandemic began. He noted that nearly 200 county employees were placed on furlough in the spring and said many other positions have been left vacant at a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said department heads have also been directed to strictly adhere to overtime budget lines as well. 

As for the proposed hiring freeze, Updegrove said he is open to discussing it but noted that, in many instances, county employees provide services mandated by the state, which can make it more difficult to keep them open if their is a vacancy. 

"I certainly understand the intent," Updegrove said of the hiring freeze proposal, "and I agree that we need to be vigilant with the management of our expenses." 

Like representatives from NYSAC, Updgegove said revenues, in particular sales tax revenues, are down this year, in large part due to the pandemic. He is also expected potentially deep cuts in state aid to local municipal governments, adding that he would not be surprised if speculation about a 20% reduction becomes a reality for the county.

"That would pose a significant challenge," Updegrove said of the prospect of a 20% reduction in state aid. "Everything at that point would be on the table." 

On the plus side, Updegrove said he believes the county has adequate available fund balance to offset some of the losses.  

"I would assure the taxpayers and residents of niagara county that we have an adequate fund balance to withstand a reduction in sales tax revenues," he said. "There's a reason that we have a superior bond rating. We have an adequate fund balance." 

Updegrove said one of the biggest unknowns where the county budget is concerned involves reimbursements for state-mandated programs.

We've prepared for this type of event, but I'm concerned that our biggest challenges will the actions taken by the state that we have no control over," he said.  

Virtuoso noted that the Democrats' proposed hiring freeze resolution does not prevent the filling of positions that are deemed necessary but does require proper justification for the hiring of new personnel from a department head as well as approval by the county manager and members of two county committees. 

"It doesn't say you can't fill a position," he said. "It has to be approved. They would need to justify that they need the position." 

The resolution is on the legislature's agenda for Tuesday's regular meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in legislative chambers at the Niagara County Courthouse building, 175 Hawley St., Lockport.

The public is allowed to attend the meeting. All attendees are required to wear masks which can only be removed when individuals are addressing the legislature during the public comment period. Seating is assigned based on current social distancing standards.

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