CE AstorinoCounty Executive Robert P. Astorino has vetoed the bill adopted by the Board of Legislators that exempted 25 percent of management employees from contributing to the cost of their health care.   

He said the legislators’ plan was a “giant step backwards” in the county’s efforts to plug the $166 million deficit in its 2011 budget.

Astorino called again on the legislators to adopt the proposal he sent to them in January, which seeks to require a 15 percent contribution – without exception -  from all 416 non-union managerial employees.  Astorino sees his plan as a first-step towards getting all county employees to contribute to their health care costs – something that can only be accomplished through the collective bargaining process.

Westchester is one of four counties in New York that provides free health insurance to its employees.  The legislators’ bill included a six-part sliding scale that decreases contributions based on seniority. Managers with 20 years or more of county employment – 111 employees or just over 25 percent of the total – would still contribute zero percent to their health care costs.

“The board’s proposal is a giant step backwards,” Astorino said. “The legislators took a simple, straightforward plan and turned it into something unworkable. First, the board’s plan cuts the savings from my plan in half. Second, it introduces a discriminatory payment scale that creates different classes of employees – those that have to pay for health care and those that get it for free, with those typically making the most money paying the least. And third, it weakens the county’s bargaining position in contract negotiations with its unions because it has dramatically lowered the bar on the savings being sought.”

Astorino emphasized that it was critical for the county to get as much savings as possible in areas like health care so it can minimize layoffs in its efforts to close the $166 million deficit projected for 2011. In laying out his budget projections earlier this month, the County Executive outlined a worst-case scenario that would require 1,600 jobs to be cut in order to balance the 2011 budget. To minimize that number, Astorino proposed a series of  short-term and long-term options, which in addition to health care contributions, included program savings, pay freezes, pay cuts, furloughs, separation incentives, and temporarily not filling job vacancies.

“Reducing health care costs is just one part of the puzzle,” Astorino said. “But it is critical that we get the most savings possible from it, because every dollar saved can be applied to saving jobs and preserving essential services next year. Smaller savings means more layoffs. That’s the stark reality in front of us.”

 Astorino’s health insurance plan would have saved taxpayers about $1.2 million annually. The legislators’ proposal saves half that because it lowers employee contributions and exempts large numbers of employees. Applying Astorino’s plan to all county employees would save about $22 million.

The county’s budgeted cost for employee health benefits has more than doubled over the last decade - jumping from $67 million in 2000 to almost $149 million this year. Westchester County is self-insured. The health plan is administered by Pomco of Syracuse. Astorino has already begun the process of reviewing the county’s health plan to see if there are comparable plans available that could provide significant savings.

“If the Board of Legislators wants to help taxpayers and employees, it needs to look at the big picture,” Astorino said. “To save jobs and programs, we need to find significant, broad-based savings to bring down the cost of government. A watered down health insurance plan was counterproductive to the goal of reducing our deficit. This veto is in the best interests of our taxpayers.”

The board can act to override the veto, which requires 12 votes, or let it stand. The board’s plan passed by a vote of 9 to 7.