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Cuomo eyes layoffs for 10,000 state workers
Using massive furloughs to close budget deficit could cost Western New York 1,000 jobs

The Cuomo administration is considering laying off more than 10,000 state workers in order to close the state's multibillion-dollar deficit, lawmakers say.

If such massive furloughs occur, it could cost up to 1,000 jobs in Western New York in the state university system, corrections, health care, transportation, environmental conservation and an array of other agencies.

Word of the potential for massive layoffs spread Thursday, the same day the state Labor Department reported the loss of 22,000 private-sector jobs in December -- 3,000 in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told lawmakers earlier this week during closed-door sessions to expect thousands of state worker layoffs in his upcoming budget plan for 2011, but he would not confirm or deny the number of 10,000 or more when questioned Thursday. One lawmaker, speaking privately, said the governor put the layoff number at 12,000 workers.

"The state is in real dire financial shape, and we're going to have to make corrections," Cuomo said Thursday in Poughkeepsie.

Whether the administration is serious about 10,000 or more layoffs or just floating a trial balloon to make lower layoff numbers more palatable with the State Legislature won't be known until Cuomo unveils his 2011 budget plan on Feb. 1.

"Every time you talk about layoff, you're talking about a family, you're talking about a person's job, you're talking about a person's life. So this is a very difficult situation all around," Cuomo said.

If Cuomo were to fire 10,000 or more workers and make further reductions through attrition or an early-retirement incentive program, thousands more government jobs also could be trimmed.

Expected cuts in state aid to local governments, public schools and Medicaid will translate into further job reductions as the governor attempts to close a $10 billion budget gap.

Fiscal conservatives have said the state and localities have grown beyond the taxpayers' means to afford the level of services provided.

"I hate to see anyone get laid off, but this whole issue is not just about layoffs or people who could lose their jobs. It's about restructuring and redesigning the way New York State does business," said Mike Long, the Conservative Party chairman, who opposed Cuomo's campaign last fall.

"I think the governor has it right when it comes to what he's faced with: We can continue to do business as usual, follow that path, which would mean more spending, higher taxes and fees and more borrowing. Doing that will only continue the demise of what was once a great state," Long said.

But the largest state worker unions insist mass layoffs will result in loss of services, whether it's direct care programs at mental health facilities, road maintenance, public safety or services at state parks.

The president of the Public Employees Federation, which represents 56,000 white-collar government workers, said Cuomo has not notified the union of any mass layoff plan.

PEF President Kenneth Brynien said, "But any suggestion of reducing the state work force by 10,000 to 15,000 would not only cripple the delivery of essential services, it would have a chilling effect on the state's economy and undermine the state's fragile recovery."

Cuomo is looking at several state agency consolidations to reduce the payroll, such as merging the Department of Motor Vehicles division into the Department of Transportation.

Precisely who is a state worker is always a bit of a moving target in Albany. The state's overall work force totaled 266,816 full-time employees at the end of December, which is down from a few years ago but about flat with 2001, according to the state comptroller's office.

But that number does not include tens of thousands of other workers in various authorities and such semi-autonomous agencies as the Thruway Authority.

The Cuomo administration says about 190,000 employees are in executive branch agencies. That includes about 54,000 employees of the State University of New York and the City University of New York, as well as another 4,100 who work for the state attorney general and comptroller.

In practice, pink slips a governor issues do not affect SUNY, CUNY or the independently elected offices of attorney general or comptroller. In SUNY's case, it has its own board that approves campus and central office payrolls.

It is uncertain whether Cuomo would work from a universe of the 132,000 workers under his direct control, or try to extend it to the other agencies like SUNY.

Lawmakers in some districts already are preparing for Cuomo to try to close prisons, which are almost exclusively located upstate. The state has vacancies in minimum- and medium-security prisons due, in part, to sentencing reforms for nonviolent offenders over the years. The Cuomo administration could not give a precise empty-bed count on Thursday.

A minimum security prison in Clinton County and a minimum security wing at a facility in Wayne County already are slated to close at the end of January. In 2009, the state closed three minimum security correctional camps and six prison annexes, according to Erik Kriss, a Cuomo budget division spokesman.

The Department of Civil Service says three-fourths of the state's civil service workers are employed by 10 agencies. The largest three are the Department of Corrections, the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities and the Office of Mental Health.

Of the 160,000 the civil service department calls "classified service work force," about 16,100 were employed as of last year in Western New York.

Legislative leaders, who have been close with public sector unions over the years, were cautious Thursday in their responses to talk of mass layoffs.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, said, "With a budget deficit approaching $11 billion, Sen. Skelos has said that everything must be on the table. We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the governor's budget when he releases it, offering our recommendations and partnering with the governor and the Assembly to craft a balanced budget that doesn't include any new taxes."

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver declined to comment on the layoff speculation, said spokeswoman Sisa Moyo.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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