A divided County Council Monday gave County Executive Charles I. Ecker the flexibility he says he needs to deal with the county's financial crisis.
Ecker got everything he wanted -- legislative approval to withhold raises and furlough employees, if necessary, in the coming fiscal year; a transfer of $800,000 to the operating budget; and authority to borrow up to $7 million from other county government funds.
In successive 4-1 votes, the council approved Ecker's request to withhold merit raises, longevity raises and so-called "pre
mium pay." Premiums had been paid to certain architects and engineers as an incentive for coming to work for the county. Withholding raises and premiums could save as much as $2 million, Ecker said.
By a 3-2 vote, the council approved Ecker's furlough request, which could theoretically save the county $200,000 a day if all 1,800 employees were furloughed.
The vote was surprising because the three council Democrats voted to give Republican Ecker what he wanted, while the two council Republicans voted against him.
The council also helped Ecker byvoting, 5-0, to allow him to divert about$800,000 in cable franchisefees to the operating budget for one year only. The fees, 5 percent of both local cable companies' operating revenues, are normally used to pay salaries, fund public-access programs and buy capital equipment for the county government channel.
Ecker received by a 4-1 vote authorization to borrow up to $7 million from other county funds to avoid ending the year in a deficit. By law, the county must balance its budget each year.
Voting against the loan request and the withholding of raises was Shane Pendergrass, D-1st. The bills give Ecker "too much power," Pendergrass said.
"You can't have all the freedom you want in life," Pendergrass said. "I can't say yes (to these bills) without limiting the power of the executive."
Pendergrass wanteda written guarantee that no county employee would be laid off. Getting none, she attempted to attach a rider to the bills that would haveprevented the administration from employee furloughs if anyone were laid off. Each of her attempts was defeated. She also sought to tablethe bills. Those attempts were defeated also.
Ironically, Pendergrass was the deciding vote in favor of the furlough bill. She explained her vote by saying, "furloughs Please are preferable to layoffs," and she hoped the bill would prevent them.
Earlier, Pendergrass, council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, and Paul Farragut, D-4th, voted to limit furloughs to one per-pay period (26 days a year) and require that furloughs be for whole days rather than portions of a day. Darrel Drown, R-2nd, and Charles Feaga, R-5th, voted against both the limitation and the furlough bill.
Drown called furloughs "short-term solutions to long-range problems." Feaga called them "a quick fix."
Gray said he would arrange for the council to meet with Ecker between now and April 19 -- the date Ecker submits his operating budget to the council. Gray said he wants to see what can be done toassure that the flexibility Ecker asked for is not needed.
Pendergrass said it is too late for such a meeting, because now that the bills are passed, the council has nothing with which to bargain. "Until we vote for the budget, we have authority to do what we want," Gray replied.
In unrelated action, the council voted, 5-0, to approve Ecker's Republican nominee to the Planning Board.
Nelson Fenwick, a member of the Republican Central Committee who confessed to being a novice inland-use matters, had undergone two nights of rigorous questioning from Democratic council members. His unanimous approval was a surprise.
He had appeared to be in trouble along party lines. Not only that, but the previous council, which was comprised of Feaga, the three current Democrats and Democrat Angela Beltram, frequently rejected the executive's Planning Board nominee, even though the nominees and the executive were Democrats.
The council tabled the reappointment of Democrat Roger W. Jones to the Human Rights Commission until he cantell the council more about problems he says the commission has withthe administration.
In other action Monday, the council voted, 4-1, with Feaga dissenting, to require sellers of new or resale homes to provide notice to buyers of a General Plan map showing the county'sland-use intentions. The vote also encourages buyers to consult withthe county planning office to make sure the information is up-to-date.
The law, which takes effect Oct. 1, does not hold the seller accountable for the accuracy of the information.