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AFSCME hears its options

Luzerne County outlined three layoff options for unionized workers. The union’s preference will be considered, officials said.

Luzerne County Commissioner Maryanne Petrilla makes her way to the closed AFSCME union meeting at Convention Hall on Monday night.

Aimee Dilger/THE TIMES LEADER

Luzerne County government’s largest union has three layoff options, members learned during a Monday night meeting in Pittston Township.

The first is to have no layoffs through the end of the year and then pay the price with more severe long-term or permanent layoffs in 2009.

The second: The entire 600-member union could switch to a 12-hour work week through the rest of the year.

The third and final option would be layoffs based on seniority through the end of the year.

Though layoffs would still be possible in 2009 under the second and third scenarios, the implication is that they would be minimized.

Members of the union – American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME – will be called to another meeting soon to vote on the options, said union head Paula Schnelly. Roughly 143 union members attended the meeting at Convention Hall.

The county Board of Commissioners will ultimately decide which option is enacted, but union preference would weigh heavily on the decision, county Chief Clerk/Manager Doug Pape said after Monday’s meeting.

AFSCME leaders plan to meet with county officials at 1 p.m. today to review the options. Pape said commissioners would have to vote on layoffs, but a vote is not expected to occur during a special commissioner meeting on Wednesday.

County officials still need to work out details on the layoff scenarios, Pape said.

For example, managers, row officers and court officials would have to figure out how to schedule employees under the 12-hour work week option to make sure offices are covered every workday.

If the county enacts layoffs based on seniority, a count of employees by office would have to be finalized, he said.

Commissioner Chairwoman Maryanne Petrilla answered questions during the second half of Monday’s meeting.

The media was not allowed in either session, but several union workers said members demanded to know whether non-union employees, including management, would also be laid off. Petrilla told the audience that management layoffs are part of the plan, members said.

Payroll cuts are necessary because the county faces an estimated $5 million deficit this year. That’s after borrowing $5.3 million, restructuring some debt and pushing off a $2.3 million employee pension fund subsidy until next year.

Petrilla said next year’s budget must be slashed 20 percent to balance. Commissioners are trying to schedule public budget hearings next week to determine which departments have come up with the requested cuts.

Petrilla said Monday morning that she wanted to face union workers to explain the county’s fiscal problems.

“It’s heart-wrenching to see the look on their faces. They deserve answers,” she said.

Commissioners had planned to implement layoffs effective today but agreed to hold off for at least one two-week pay period to gather union input. The courts offered $750,000 from a special fund to avoid layoffs, but it’s unclear if that money will be handed over if the county proceeds with layoffs in court branches.

The AFSCME union includes a broad mix of employees in offices throughout the county, including row office and court-related branches.

Pape said layoffs, if enacted this year, would take effect on Nov. 7.

“There are definitely going to be layoffs. There’s just a question of when they will be,” Pape said.

Minority Commissioner Stephen A. Urban said layoffs should be done now because the county already pushed off the pension fund subsidy. If commissioners do nothing, the county would likely be forced to borrow from other county agencies to get through the year. The borrowed funds must then be repaid at the start of next year.

“It’s difficult to lay people off, but I don’t want to go into next year already owing $7 million or more,” Urban said. “The bottom line is I don’t want to be in this predicament again next October.”

Urban said he did not attend Monday’s union meeting because Petrilla had agreed to represent the board, and he did not want to be accused of a Sunshine Law violation.

Several union members got emotional and teary after Monday’s meeting. They were quick to point out viable spending cuts throughout the county, particularly in management and court branches.

Court of Common Pleas President Judge Mark Ciavarella has said he will take the county to court if commissioners try to cut staff in court branches, which include central court, orphan’s court, court administration, probation services, domestic relations, stenographers and district judge offices.

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