County Girds For Cutbacks

Ecker Says Layoffs Not Out Of Question

October 13, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Howard County will be hurt more than most jurisdictions by proposed cuts in state aid, local officials say, because of extreme measures the county took last May to balance its budget.

At the time, the combination of increased taxes, layoffs, elimination of raises and a 12percent reduction in services looked like it would be sufficient to get the county through its own fiscal crisis.

Since then, the county has had to borrow $3 million from this year's budget to balance the previous one and has received much less than expected from its share of the state income tax.

Even before theGeneral Assembly began looking to the counties last week to help solve the state's fiscal crisis, Howard County was looking for ways to cover a deficit that was expected to run as high as $11 million.

The cuts approved Friday by the General Assembly -- $68 million statewide, $4.1 million of that locally -- are in addition to the $3.9 million the state Board of Public Works cut earlier from the community college and the county social services and health departments.

The new county cuts are being offered in lieu of state cuts that would haveresulted in the firing of 1,776 state employees, including 83 troopers.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said the county is being doubly penalized. A $10 million cap on cuts in state aid benefits such counties as Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's, Ecker said, butdoes nothing for Howard, the second smallest in the state.

"We bit the bullet pretty hard for this year, and to take an additional hitis really very devastating," Ecker told legislators in Annapolis on Thursday afternoon. "Not many counties reduced their budget, but we were one of five or six that did."

Ecker told legislators that the only way the county could survive without state aid is to lay off andfurlough employees.

"I'm concerned about how much you can ask an employee to do," Ecker said. "We have asked people to go without raises, and in some cases actually decreased their salaries, while increasing their health costs and their workload. I don't think you can askemployees to take another hit."

Regardless, that is what will happen if Gov. William Donald Schaefer approves the plan passed by the General Assembly.

Ecker, who previously said he was opposed to furloughs, now says that "everything is up for grabs." He said he may be forced to use some combination of layoffs and furloughs to make up the extra deficit the legislature's plan is likely to impose on the county.

Most of the cut -- $3.2 million in property taxes -- would have to be taken from personnel and services, because that sector is the only discretionary portion of the budget, Ecker said. The other $970,000 -- Social Security payments for teachers -- would have to come from the education portion of the budget.

"If we laid off employees 10 days, we could save $2 million, which would probably be better than layoffs," he said. "The problem is many employees told me they cannot afford a one-day furlough, much less 10."

County employees have been anticipating bad news since Schaefer announced the state cutstwo weeks ago.

Based on calculations in which $1.5 million was shaved from the current budget by laying off 40 employees, Ecker would have to lay off another 107 employees if the entire deficit were to be made up by cutting personnel.

Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks refused to speculate about layoffs other than to say the county would do everything possible to avoid them by using other budget-cutting measures first.

Ecker said he plans to meet with community leaders in the coming weeks to discuss the county's worsening fiscal crisis and seek their advice about how to achieve short-term and long-term solutions.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, who along with Ecker and three other council members lobbied legislators in Annapolis on Thursday, was livid about the proposed cuts.

If the General Assembly wants to cut services, members "should stand up and say they intend to cut firemen, policemen and food for seniors," he said. "They should tell people what services they intend to cut. There is no chance for citizen input."

Gray does not want that to happen here. He has scheduled a special public hearing Oct. 24 "to listen to citizens' ideas" on how the county should set its spending priorities in light of the new cuts. Department heads and bureau chiefs were toldThursday to prepare for layoffs and furloughs.

"I am concerned about people, and I know that by mentioning layoffs now, I am creating apprehension in everyone's mind," Ecker said.

"Yet I want to be truthful. It is a question of the appropriate time" to make the announcement.

Every deficit-cutting scheme will have "ups and downs," Wacks said. "The question is not deciding what's good for the county, but deciding what is less horrible."

If furloughs and layoffs come, they will come quickly, Wacks said. Among alternatives being considered first, however, is a bond financing proposal that, while producingincome this year, would increase debt service in later years.

Still being considered is a bond refinancing plan devised during the earlier crisis. That plan would raise $1.2 million without increasing debt service in future years.

Wacks said the county is also trying to find out whether it can legally use county money previously deemed untouchable because it is designated for specific purposes.

"What is good for the county short term may not be good long term," Wacks said. Regardless, the county will move as quickly as possible. "The faster we decide (what to do), the sooner we start saving money," he said.

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