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Berkeley County eliminates 4 jobs

January 15, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG -- The Berkeley County Commission on Thursday eliminated four more county jobs in an attempt to erase projected red ink in the county government's budget for the current fiscal year.

The affected employees in the engineering, planning and county commission offices are expected to remain on the payroll until mid-February, Commission President Ronald K. Collins said.

"We're going to try to give them 30 days from (Thursday)," Collins said.

State law doesn't allow the county commission to give severance packages to the administrative assistants in the planning and commission offices, and the plans examiner and development field inspector in the engineering department who are being laid off, County Administrator Deborah Hammond said.

But the employees will be compensated for any unused vacation days.

Collins said the employees were notified Wednesday of the possibility they would be losing their jobs.

"This has not been easy for us to do," Collins said of the layoffs, which began last summer with the elimination of the county's Worthless Check Division.

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The commission is expected to formally vote on the employees' "change in status" next week.

The layoffs, combined with the commission's decision to leave four more positions vacant, is expected to result in a budget reduction of $362,997 in salary and benefits, according to analysis prepared for Thursday's commission meeting by Human Resources Director Alan J. Davis.

Employees have an opportunity to interview for openings in the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department, and Blue Ridge Community and Technical College officials are expected to assist those laid off with finding jobs, Collins said.

"This is a very sensitive and emotional issue any time you have to lay someone off," Commissioner Anthony J. "Tony" Petrucci said.

In December, the commission said five or six employees could be laid off as part of efforts to eliminate a projected $1.5 million deficit. On Thursday, Collins was optimistic the staffing cuts decided this week were enough.

"The picture right now, today, is looking a little better," Collins said. "But we have to deal with it on a month-to-month basis."

Collins said efforts to cut expenses have helped the county's bottom line, which has been beleaguered by the evaporation of fees collected from building permit and plan review applications.

In the last three months, Collins said the county received only $1,500 for one development project.

"I want to emphasize - today, this could be as far as we could have to go," Collins said of the layoffs. "Tomorrow, that could change."

Hammond said the staff reductions have motivated efforts to share staff among the engineering, planning and commission offices, which are next to each other on the second floor of the county's office building at 400 W. Stephen St.

Hammond said Davis is preparing a schedule for staff to rotate among the offices when workloads are busiest.

Looking ahead to next year, Collins vowed the commission would not be put in the position of making midyear cuts for a third consecutive budget.

"I'm not going through that again," Collins said. "We're going to have a realistic budget (for 2009-10)."

Next year's budget, based on current revenue shortfalls, could dip below $20 million and a tax increase might not be out of the question, Collins said.

"We've got to look at everything, whether we want to or not," Collins said.

In the next 30 days, Collins said current tax revenue numbers from Assessor Preston B. Gooden's office will help the commission decide how to proceed.

As it stands, Collins said the county's tax books are "out of balance" between commercial and residential development, with more of the latter, which generates less revenue.

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