Rhinebeck highway dept. layoffs averted

After a strong argument by Rhinebeck’s highway superintendent, the Town Board has voted to keep all highway workers on the payroll through the end of the year.

In budget workshops one year ago, two highway department jobs were on the chopping block as a cost-cutting measure. Last November, board members said they anticipated the layoffs would occur in September 2012 and would save the town $34,000, based on four months of two annual salaries, from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 of this year.

Since then, according to Highway Superintendent Kathy Kinsella, the board has had no further communication on the issue.

“It was only out there as an idea, but no motions had been passed for or against it,” she told the Town Board at its Aug. 27 meeting. “That it has been significantly detrimental to morale is a vast understatement.”

Kinsella said that the two jobs were one worker from the highway crew plus a floating laborer. The department has 11 employees, including the superintendent and the secretary, according to the town website.

“I respect the job the board has, to watch expenses and to keep costs down,” Kinsella added, “but there is sufficient money in the budget to avoid layoffs.”

She pointed out that there is a surplus of $35,000 because of the mild winter, which resulted in savings in equipment and personnel expenses, and because one employee is on an extended unpaid leave.

She added that there have been many cuts over the years in the department budget, and that the union members had voluntarily given up an anticipated 3 percent raise in their contract last year, with the intent of saving the town money. Beginning Sept. 1, her employees also began paying 12.5 percent of their health benefits, she said, and on April 1, 2013, they will pay an additional 12.5 percent.

Five department employees accompanied Kinsella to the meeting. Highway Foreman Bobby Wyant discussed staffing levels. “With more traffic, we need more flaggers, which is a liability issue as well as a safety issue. I treat every road as if my wife will be driving on it. I need everybody I can get,” he said.

After an executive session, board members Gina Fox, Elizabeth Spinzia and Joe Gelb voted in favor of keeping the workers till the end of the year. Supervisor Tom Traudt and Councilman Bruce Washburn voted against.

“Our cost per lane-mile is higher than comparable towns,” Washburn explained later, “and it goes up every year. This is due to the wages and benefits the highway employees receive.”

Fox said that she was “really happy” that the board could finally vote on the issue. “What we did created a vote of confidence for the union,” said Fox. “It showed our appreciation for them.”

“With one worker already out [on medical leave], we would be entering the winter season with three men down,” she added. “And to put two families out of work would be needlessly misguided. There are plenty of other places we can cut the budget.”

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