Md. DOT tightens its belt Transit department, seeking a tax rise, cleaning own house

September 16, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

Maryland transportation officials are trying to improve service to the public, a move that could increase legislative support for higher taxes on motorists.

Under a new reorganization plan, the Department of Transportation is eliminating 50 vacant jobs and shifting about 100 employees from its headquarters in northern Anne Arundel County to various offices that deal more directly with the public.

The department needs to clean house before expecting state legislators to agree to higher taxes, said Deputy Transportation Secretary Stephen G. Zentz.

"Before the legislature and the public can be supportive of a tax increase, we have to get our own house in order," Zentz said.

The General Assembly rejected the department's request for higher gasoline taxes earlier this year, amid criticism of the department's handling of road and light-rail projects.

At that time, some lawmakers urged the department to improve its efficiency before trying to dig deeper into taxpayers' pockets. The recession and voters' opposition to new taxes also contributed to the tax proposal's death.

Under the reorganization, which was unveiled this month, 50 vacant jobs will be eliminated. That will save $1.5 million that would have been spent on annual salaries and benefits if the positions were filled, said Assistant Deputy Secretary Stephen Reich.

Earlier this month, the Maryland Port Administration, which reports to the department, announced it was cutting 72 jobs, some vacant and some filled. That would save another $2.75 million a year.

The reorganization is a significant attempt to improve efficiency and save money, Reich said. "It's not a mere reshuffling of the deck. There's a rationale behind it," he said.

A State House source, however, said some lawmakers plan "to wait and see whether this [reorganization] is a bunch of hot air, or if it really means something."

The department came under fire when legislators debated taxes this year. Several lawmakers, particularly in the House of Delegates, criticized the Transportation Department for requesting more money without improving services and without providing enough information on how the tax dollars would be spent.

Transportation officials, however, said the department was running on empty, as the recession and other factors caused its revenues to plummet.

The General Assembly ultimately acknowledged the department's need for more money when it approved a less-ambitious request for higher Motor Vehicle Administration fees during a special session in June.

Many lawmakers have said they would be willing to reconsider the gasoline tax issue in 1992. A transportation revenue-raising proposal of some sort is likely to be on the legislature's plate in January, according to various government sources.

O. James Lighthizer, who became transportation secretary less than a year ago, told legislators in a Sept. 4 letter that "we were being caught up in our own bureaucracy."

Several tasks that had been handled from the department's headquarters near Baltimore-Washington International Airport are being shifted to various agencies, such as the highway and motor vehicle administrations.

"It's easier to be insulated from the public when you're in a central office than when you're in the agency that handles the public," said Del. Thomas H. Hattery, a Frederick County Democrat who works on transportation issues in the legislature.

The various personnel moves are expected to be completed by the end of September, Reich said.

About 40 personnel division employees are finding a new home at the State Highway Administration in Baltimore, he said. About 30 safety program employees are moving to the SHA traffic office near the airport.

Thirty people no longer needed in headquarters are being sent ** to fill vacancies in various agencies, he said.

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