Dwindling Funds Turn Hearing Acrimonious

Groups Are Chastised For Lifeboat Mentality

October 27, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Early in Thursday night's budget hearing, County Council member Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, sought to quell what she saw as "mounting hostility" in the audience of more than 250 people.

"This hearing is not intended to pit people against each other," she said, after speakers recommended that one way out of the county's financial crisis was to cut others' fat and spare their lean.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, scheduled the hearing to elicit suggestions on paring another $3.2 million from an austere budget.

Nothing was sacred. The council was told the county should trim what it spends for employee health coverage, scrap subsidies for the arts, stop building new schools, sell cars used by executives, andshut down local government completely one day a week.

The fiscal 1992 budget, adopted by the council in May, increased property taxes by 6 percent, laid off 40 employees, eliminated raises and reduced services by 12 percent.

In the five months since May, the situation has worsened. The county now forecasts a $9.5 million deficit, primarily because of cuts in state aid and lower-than-expected revenue fromthe county share of the state income tax.

The situation could become worse still, Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks told the council. "Everybody I've been talking to says the state deficit will be more like $550 million to $600 million" instead of the $450 million forecast, he said.

"Very soon," Wacks said, "the other shoe will be dropping. We have to get ready now. The question is, 'How can we deal with the cuts?' not 'How we can avoid them?' Because they can't be avoided."

Priscilla Hart, speaking on behalf of the Association of Community Services, put it differently. "The one question the county needs to ask," she said, "is, 'Is this a vital, needed service -- meeting basic human needs or providing public safety -- or is this a service that is nice to have?' "

Most of the 37 people who testified soughtto persuade the council that the causes they espoused are essential.

"I don't mind that the County Council and county executive gave themselves raises last year while the rest of the county took cuts andsuffered layoffs -- as long as you take the money and purchase a backbone with it," said Jan Smyers, chairwoman of the citizens advisory committee to the Board of Education.

Smyers said the county could cover its anticipated $14 million gross deficit by raising taxes $192per year per household.

"When the average household income in Howard County is $64,000 per year, then I think we can sustain increasedtaxes of $16 per month to ensure our county's future," she said.

Todd L. Brace, services supervisor at the county employment and training center, told the council that "the county must have the courage" to include the Board of Education in its cuts and "must not bow to a group which makes unprofessional threats if an increase in income is not granted."

The county needs to protect residents that cannot protect themselves, he said -- "the elderly, the low-income, the ill and the growing number of unemployed."

Mary Campbell, an employee inthe county Office of Human Rights, suggested that rather than lay off employees, the county impose a pay cut with a promise to pay it back later at 3 percent interest. County employees were unanimous in saying they would prefer "across-the-board furloughs" to layoffs.

Gray said he would send County Executive Charles I. Ecker a letter summarizing the hearing with suggestions about policy decisions.

"We'regoing to look closely at budget cuts if he wants other things (like legislation authorizing furloughs) from us," Gray said. "Across-the-board cuts are the easiest but not the fairest. They penalize those who been frugal and reward those who have been hoarding."

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