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A virtual hiring freeze is in effect in Niagara County government, and a key legislator is worrying about possible layoffs in 1999.

Legislator Gerald R. DeFlippo, R-Lockport, the chairman of the County Legislature's Human Resources Committee, warned: "Anybody who takes a job with the county right now, it could be a short-term living."

Legislator Robert L. Seger, D-North Tonawanda, is sponsoring a resolution for Tuesday's Legislature meeting that calls on the Human Resources Committee to enforce the policy that "vacant positions shall be filled only on an emergency basis." That's a directive DeFlippo said he's already sent to department heads.

But Majority Leader Shirley G. Urtel, R-Cambria, who also is chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said: "The question is up for debate as to whether we're in that kind of a bind." She said positions could be "filled on need" as far as she's concerned.

Mrs. Urtel said, "Layoffs are the last thing we're going to look at." She said the real problem stems from the decision of the 1997 Democratic-controlled Legislature to use an extra $2 million from the county's surplus to cut property taxes for 1998, instead of sticking with the tax levy freeze it had followed the previous three years.

"I think people are beginning to see that $2 million shouldn't have been used," Mrs. Urtel said. She also charged the Democrats unrealistically inflated revenue projections to make the budget balance.

Mid-year figures showed sales tax revenue and decreases in welfare costs running behind the amounts projected in the 1998 budget approved last December.

DeFlippo said, "Any jobs are not going to be filled from now until December unless it's really desperate. . . . We're trying to keep this new (1999) budget at zero percent (spending growth), but I don't see how we're going to do it if we keep filling these positions."

Seger noted that the Republicans spoke earlier in the year about hiring freezes, but didn't follow through. In late February, Mrs. Urtel, who had sponsored a limited spending policy for the first two months of the year, dropped plans for a hiring freeze when a report on savings from early retirements showed more savings than expected.

"Everybody gets weak knees," complained Seger, who headed Human Resources the last two years when the Democrats were the majority party in the Legislature.

Seger claimed not enough money is being deposited in a contingency fund called "provision for state reduction," which was created a few years ago to cushion the shock of possible state aid cuts. Its source is usually salaries budgeted but unpaid because of vacant jobs. It is used as a reserve that is occasionally tapped for unexpected projects.

The county Office of Management and Budget said the fund currently contains $193,297. A total of $257,801 has been deposited in the kitty this year, meaning $64,504 was spent.

However, the budget office said the fund contained $253,173 at the end of 1997, and another $101,854 was spent from that source last year. The remainder was considered part of the county's surplus.

Seger insisted, "I think positions are being filled too quickly. . . . It's a bad thing to have positions filled if they aren't absolutely necessary. We can save a ton of money."

Human Resources Director Albert T. Joseph agreed. "There may be some vacant positions that if you leave them vacant for a while, you find you can get by without them, and then you can abolish them," he said.

No figures were available on how many budgeted county jobs are now vacant, but Joseph said it might be as few as 20 to 40. The county employs nearly 1,900.

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