ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County is laying off 96 employees, as well as leaving 32 vacant positions unfilled, as the economic fallout from COVID-19 continues.

The news came during a budget update from County Administrator Jason Molino on Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature.

Normally, the budget season would have kicked off this fall, with Molino presenting his budget proposal to the legislature in early September, before the legislature debated and tweaked the proposal over the course of about 8 weeks, with the budget usually approved the first week of November. Uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the budget to the fore much earlier than usual.

However, Molino is projecting a budget gap of somewhere between $11 million and $18 million in operating expenses through the end of 2020.

To alleviate the impact of these deficits on future budgets, the county will be dramatically reducing expenditures for the remainder of the year, including on employee payroll and by continuing the suspension of new hiring.

“It’s disheartening to see an 11 to 22% shortfall. It’s disheartening to furlough employees,” Molino said on a call with media earlier Tuesday. “That’s probably the most frustrating thing — projecting how this is going to end is difficult…it’s impossible right now”

The 32 vacancies that will be left unfilled will net the county the largest saving — a little over $2.2 million, through the end of 2020. While the full or partial lay off of 96 employees, which the county hopes will only be effective through the end of July, will close that gap by another $587,000.

The county will also reduce spending on the design phase of a proposed office building in downtown Ithaca by $500,000. Additional savings were found by postponing the replacement of equipment including furniture and vehicles, as well as not hiring seasonal staff that the county might normally bring on. In sum, cost reductions will net the county nearly $4.8 million.

The means, even in the scenario outlined as the milder, which assumes a 15.4% decline in sales tax and a 15% reduction in state aid, the county would face an operating deficit of $7 million after the cost reductions. The severe scenario, which would see a 20.5% drop in sales tax revenue and a 30% reduction in state aid, would see the county operate at a deficit of more than $13.5 million.

Furloughs will begin on May 8. Molino says that the county will re-evaluate things at the end of June to gauge if the situation had changed.

While the county plans to begin scaling operations back up after July 31, they will do so on a per department basis, based on workflow and public demand, meaning that the positions furloughed might not be the same that are brought back when the county does begin scaling operations back up.

“Not a great picture,” concluded Molino.

Moving into May, Molino says that the county will begin considering early retirement incentives as well as restructuring health insurance contributions for current employees and retirees in an effort to further close the gap. The county will continue paying an 80% share of employee health benefits.