The Howard County executive said yesterday that he plans to lay off 200 employees -- one out of every nine county workers -- and not fill 100 existing vacancies to cut costs during a time of declining tax revenues.
"We estimate the layoffs will result in about $7 million in savings," said Executive Charles I. Ecker. "There also is the possibility of furloughs, in addition to the layoffs. We are really faced with tough times."
He said that county employees would be notified April 1 whether they would be laid off, and that the decision would be based on seniority and job performance.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, questioned the Republican executive's decision to make a general statement about laying off 200 county employees without specifically identifying them.
"I don't think he is handling the issue of layoffs very well," Mr. Gray said. "If he is going to do it, he should identify the people first. As a result, he has spread a lot of uncertainty, and employees have become less productive because they anticipate a layoff. Anxiety is running rampant through the county government."
Mr. Ecker said that at this point he knows"what the bottom line is, but whether it is two, five or 10 employees from a particular department, I don't know. I could say there would not be any layoffs, and I would be lying.
"I know it is creating anxieties," he continued. "I will let people know as soon as possible. It is a terrible thing to do, but I have a responsibility to the taxpayers."
The executive said he believes there should be provisions "to bring people back as the vacancies occur and they should have first preference to fill vacancies for which they are qualified."
However, he said he does not anticipate adding new employees in the coming fiscal year even if the financial picture improves beyond expectations. He said he wants to build up a "rainy day fund" of up to 5 percent of the county's budget if there is extra money.
Mr. Ecker said that laid-off employees would receive compensation for any outstanding leave, but that the county would not offer them severance pay. The county's employment and training center would help laid-off employees write resumes and assist them in their job search.
"Practically speaking, there is no money to set aside [for severancepay]," Mr. Ecker said. "The public has to realize the severe financial crisis we are in. We can't keep going to the taxpayers to say we need more taxes."
The executive said he is looking for additional revenue sources, such as raising the amusement tax from 5 percent to 10 percent and increasing landfill tipping fees and fees associated with processing new development.
He has previously said he was trying to keep increases in the current property tax rate of $2.45 for each $100 of assessed value "as close to zero as possible."
Mr. Ecker said he is still upset that while county workers are facing layoffs and going without raises, the Board of Education is sticking with its plan to give teachers a previously negotiated 6 percent raise.
"I can't justify 6 percent raise for teachers, but I am mandated by state law to give the Board of Education a certain amount of money," he said, adding that there was not much he could do to stop it.
The executive has asked departments to reduce their budgets by 16 percent, and the impact of those cuts will be the subject to a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. March 6 in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.