Council Member Squares Off Against 'Rainy Day Fund'

June 19, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

County Council member Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, said Monday that sheopposes setting up a "rainy day fund" for emergencies until after teachers and county employees have been given raises.

Neither teachers nor county employees receive raises in the fiscal 1992 budget thattakes effect July 1. In addition, 40 county workers were laid off and another 119 vacancies were left unfilled due to the county's budgetcrunch.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker saw a $24 million surplus evaporate from the $286 million budget he inherited from his predecessor last November. Next year,he may be looking at a deficit.

As a result, Ecker wants to take steps now to ensure that a national recession will never again cripple the county. He is proposing two County Charter amendments that would require the county to place about 5 percent of its annual budget in reserve for emergencies. Had there been such a law this year, the formula for fiscal 1992 would have worked out to6.3 percent, or $17 million.

Numbers like that concern both Pendergrass and council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, who say they do not want to commit that much money so far in advance. Even a modest $1 million that Ecker sought to reserve in the austere fiscal 1992 budget was deemed too much by the council. Deciding that the "rainy day isnow," the council diverted the entire $1 million to other projects.

Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks told Gray that the county would not have to raise taxes or cut programs to fill up the account but could do so gradually with surpluses. If the executive did propose putting additional money into the fund, the council could delete it.

Bylaw, the council can cut whatever the executive proposes. But a charter amendment requiring surplus money to go into the fund could not be overridden by the council or the executive.

Unlike changes in the county code, charter amendments must be approved by voters in a general election. For the executive or the council to place a charter amendment on the ballot, four of the five council members must approve it.

Wacks said that although voters would not have the opportunityto approve the amendment until November, the government could get ready now to implement it for fiscal 1993 should the "recession-proofing" idea win voter approval.

Pendergrass said she wants to avoid restricting the use of surplus money in the upcoming budget. She maintained that the county has a moral commitment to use any surplus to "reward county employees and teachers." Any forthcoming surplus should be shared immediately, not held back for the following year, Pendergrass said.

Wacks said he could not predict how the executive would use surpluses in the next budget. "Whether you pass (the amendment) now or later, you still have the same options," he said. "To pass it isto send a message that we're serious about recession-proofing. It isa solution to a problem -- short-term pain for a long-term gain."

"The layoffs caused by the deficit are the concern I have to deal with," Pendergrass replied.

Wacks continued to press for passage now. "It is important to remember how badly we hurt" as a result of the recession, he said.

"I still remember how hurt the teachers are," Pendergrass countered. "I think this (legislation) is very premature."

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