Baltimore Co. plays 'What if?' Officials pondering possible tax-cap cuts

October 17, 1990|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

How would the Baltimore County school system deal with 4,000 additional students next September if its budget is cut by $19 million?

And what would county police do if they lost $5 million in their budget, despite the fact that 80 percent of their expenses are built in for negotiated salaries?

Those are among the concerns of Baltimore County officials while they await the Election Day referendum in which voters will decide whether to cap the county's property tax revenues at 2 percent annual growth.

Neither the referendum's outcome nor its effects are certain, but County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, county budget officials and department heads indicated yesterday that layoffs of county employees are a possibility, if a last resort, should tax revenues dip sharply due to a tax cap and economic recession.

Layoffs of current employees would come only after attrition, hiring freezes and delayed purchases, officials said.

Rasmussen and county Budget Director Fred Homan told department heads yesterday that for their budgets to remain at current levels, plus additional built-in costs that can't be avoided, the bill will be $41 million more than the county is projected to take in during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The shortfall of $41 million would be due about equally to the tax cap and the effects of recession on real estate transfer taxes and other taxes shared with the state, county officials said.

Since $41 million is about 7 percent of the county-funded share of the operating budget, each department was told to prepare for a possible 7 percent cut. The rub is that built-in cost increases, such as negotiated pay raises, pension costs and insurance increases, must be paid, so any gap must be made up in other areas, such as jobs.

Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan said, for example, that he might be able to survive a $3.5 million slice without laying off experienced officers, but not a $5 million bite.

County schools superintendent Robert Y. Dubel said a $19 million reduction couldn't be made up without cutting services. But Dubel said he would strongly seek to avoid teacher layoffs.

"We'll have to increase class sizes, cut back on programs," he said. "There'll be minimal increases for employees. But we're not going to layoff teachers, not when we're expecting an additional 4,000 students."

The school system normally loses several hundred teachers through attrition each year, however.

Baltimore County has about 6,000 teachers. Dubel said that perhaps more than the usual number may decide to retire this year, suggesting attrition could help reduce the burden of any cut.

Dubel said he would not identify specific school programs that might be cut. He said he is still hopeful the 2 percent cap will not pass Nov. 6, and the projected revenue figures will be better than expected.

John D. O'Neill, who organized the petition drive that put the tax cap on the ballot, said he had not heard the figures, but thought they were exaggerated.

He projected that the cap will cost the county $11 million, not $20 million, as officials said. He also predicted that it will be approved by the voters in record numbers. The current federal budget standoff in Washington will only exacerbate voter disgust, he said.

Library director Charles W. Robinson said he has seen this coming for months, and already has a plan that would eliminate all Sunday library hours, lay off part-time professional librarians and drop 30 to 50 full-time professional employees from a staff of 180 during a period of several years. Libraries would lose about $1 million.

Bookmobile service would be sharply reduced, Robinson said. The lower paid clerical personnel couldn't be laid off, he said, because they are the ones who check materials in and out each day. They are indispensable, he said.

In public works, which would have to absorb a $2 million cut, director Gene Neff said that fewer laborers' jobs would be refilled should they become vacant.

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