The chairman of Howard County's Human Rights Commission says a proposal to cut his budget by 69 percent next year would undermine the commission's work at a time when the number of discrimination complaints is surging.
Roger W. Jones, the chairman, said the proposed cut shows a "complete disregard" for the commission's goals "at the very moment that racial, religious and ethnic incidents within Howard County have increased an astonishing 60 percent."
Manus J. O'Donnell, director of the Department of Citizen Services that oversees the commission, has recommended the cut as part of his plan to meet the county executive's demand that all departments reduce spending by 16 percent.
The commission's current budget of $19,650 had been whittled to $13,950 during a round of spending cuts forced by the county's $20 million shortfall. Mr. O'Donnell is recommending a $6,150 budget for the commission for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Mr. Jones said the cut was "too drastic" and was made "arbitrarily" without consulting the commission.
Mr. O'Donnell defended his actions, saying that before making the cuts he had consulted with Cynthia Harvey, the county's human rights administrator who also serves as executive secretary to the commission.
Mr. O'Donnell said he proposed cuts ranging from 69 percent to 91 percent in the budgets of five boards and commissions under his department.
"The Human Rights Commission was cut the least in percentage terms and will have the largest budget of all five," he said.
The Consumer Affairs Commission's budget went from $5,460 to $500; the Commission on Aging's budget, from $5,060 to $710; the Disability Services Commission, from $8,000 to $1,680; and the Women's Commission, from $16,950 to $4,270.
"No one likes the cuts, but except for Mr. Jones I have not had any complaints," said Mr. O'Donnell. "Their budget does not reduce their ability to hold hearings and perform their responsibilities."
However, Human Rights Commission members said the cuts would scuttle plans to survey the private sector and create a data base on the racial makeup of the local work force, and would defer plans for a human relations camp.
The nine-member commission, which meets twice monthly, holds hearings in contested discrimination cases brought by the Office of Human Rights and undertakes surveys to determine if discrimination is occurring in the county.
The commission also holds a student essay contest and issues a newsletter to keep the public informed about the state of human rights in Howard County.
Marshall Spurlock, a Human Rights Commission member and its former chairman, maintained that a 69 percent budget cut "sends a badsignal to the general population about the county's concerns for civil rights."
Tom Hartman, another former commission chairman, said he understood the need to make cuts during this "difficult financial time, but the cuts were done by fiat, so of course it raises hackles. We were never asked for our input. We received the news as fait accompli."
Mr. Jones said he believed the commission "cannot survive" such a cut, and he has asked its lawyer if it can solicit funds from the public and business "to fight discrimination within Howard County."
The controversy has reached the ears of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who said he plans to meet with Mr. Jones "to see what the problem is. I want to get to the bottom of it."