Lawmakers say early-retirement plan could weaken services


In an effort to pare $300 million from the budget, the governor's office has dangled a $15,000 early-retirement bonus before eligible state workers in Berkshire County.

Other employees can qualify for $5,000 payments.

The downside: Goodbye job.

And for the public, the job losses may weaken state services, three Berkshire County lawmakers warn.

"These agencies are understaffed as it is," said state Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Peru. "I think the calls we're going to get if the agencies run short-staffed are going to increase."

At the state Department of Mental Health office at 333 East St. in Pittsfield, people on the fourth floor were just getting the news Monday, and sizing up the impact.

One employee expressed concern about the cuts, but referred questions to the area office in Northampton, where the manager also declined comment.

The hunt for savings follows a mid-October deadline for the state check its fiscal health.

Kristen Lepore, Gov. Charlie Baker's budget chief, told her boss Friday that while sales tax receipts may rise 3.1 percent over the last fiscal year, that won't be enough to cover expenses in this year's $39.25 billion spending plan.

Lepore estimated a deficit of $295 million. Her finding empowers Baker to make emergency mid-year budget cuts.

State workers have until Nov. 14 to apply for the buyouts. After that, if the job changes do not produce enough savings, further cuts may be made.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said the state must use caution with retirement incentives. She believes they can sap agencies' readiness to provide services.

"What we do not have is a good sense of the service impact of those cuts," she said from Boston.

When the state made a similar offer last summer, one Pittsfield human services office found itself in crisis. Farley-Bouvier said that in July 2015, the state office of the Department of Children and Families lost four of its five program directors.

"That was something like 100 years of experience leaving the department in one day. It had a tremendous impact on the department," she said. "They went through a pretty rough summer."

This time around, funding for "core services" at DCF will be protected, according to the governor's office.

Mark, who represents the 2nd Berkshire District, said he believes Baker is jumping the gun and is motivated by a desire to remove thousands of public sector jobs.

"It's really too early for him to be making these cuts," Mark said.

Requests Monday and Tuesday to the governor's office for a response to Mark's statement were not answered.

Last fall, Mark accompanied a DCF caseworker on her rounds in the Greenfield area. That caseworker later quit because of the workload, Mark said.

"The hours they're putting in are ridiculous," he said. "I think they're taking on more than they should."

The Eagle on Monday requested a breakdown on affected state jobs in Berkshire County from the governor's office. That information was not made available as of 5 p.m.

State Rep. Gailanne M. Cariddi, D-North Adams, said early retirements can open gaps in knowledge while agencies are "waiting for new hires, and bringing them up to speed."

But she expressed faith in agency managers. "They know how to maneuver their people."

Cariddi said she would be most concerned about maintaining support for constituents who use health and wellness programs in Northern Berkshire County and for those in North Adams who have lost jobs.

"There can be some bumps along the way," she said.

Noah Berger, president of the Boston-based Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the state budget process could be improved.

"Changes midyear can be a disruptive," he said. "It's hard for people who are not inside those agencies to give clear answers" about service needs.

"It's best to do longer-term planning and be clear about what your objectives are," he added.

The governor tried to trim the budget by about $300 million in July, but legislative overrides restored the spending.

Farley-Bouvier said her constituents are not served by a rush to find short-term savings.

She noted that when employees in the state Department of Revenue are lost, they take away years of practical experience in chasing tax delinquents, at a cost to state revenues.

"You need a certain level of experience to do that well," she said of DOR employees. "I would be very cautious about the early-retirement program."

Daniela Trammel, director of communications for the state Department of Mental Health, said the impact of retirements cannot yet be gauged.

"It's a little premature to discuss the impact at this point, not really knowing how many folks will participate," she said in an email, in response to questions from the Eagle.


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