Anxiety in the Washington Suburbs

October 30, 1991

The anxiety in suburban Washington flowing from cuts in state aid has been answered with Christmastime furloughs, still more belt-tightening and local tax proposals. The latest fiscal aerobics come as no surprise. Montgomery and Prince George's counties are reeling from yawning gaps in tax revenue and slashed aid from Annapolis.

There are signs that the tough-times message is being heard. In Montgomery, where anti-tax sentiment pushed through a cap on property tax increases last fall, County Executive Neal Potter is calling for an steep jump in the energy tax -- which was just hiked in April -- to help suture a $57 million shortfall in this fiscal year. Montgomery Council President Isiah Leggett doesn't want to boost the tax again, but notes, "We're at a point where we don't have many options."

Prince George's County, facing a $37.5 million shortfall, wants to trim another $5 million from schools on top of $7.5 million cut a few weeks ago. County Executive Parris Glendening may have to renege on his promise not to fire more workers in Prince George's, where the payroll has shrunk by 1,000 slots from layoffs and a hiring freeze.

There seems to be a growing, if grudging, awareness that priorities and agendas have to change. Montgomery School Board President Blair Ewing says he's willing to try to shave more money from school spending -- provided it's no more than the requested $7.2 million. Prince George's school chief Edward Felegy says he doesn't "think it's going to be possible" to avoid layoffs. Workers in both counties seem relieved to be facing small hits to their paychecks instead of no paychecks at all.

But there are holdouts. On Monday night, the eve of the county council vote on Mr. Potter's budget guidelines, scores of county workers staged an all-night sleep-in protesting what they see as the county's attempt to balance its budget on the back of public employees. "What we have to do is send the council a message," said Vincent Foo, leader of the county's public employees union. Phyllis Parks Robinson, president of the teacher's union, thinks teachers should stop all extra work in response to the proposed cuts. And there's a deep vein of resentment among county workers who blame state legislators for dodging a tax increase.

Financial pressures facing local governments are real. Worse, they're continuing. Many jurisdictions -- including the state -- are shooting at moving targets as the recession creates new deficit gaps that must be closed. A cooperative and creative approach by employee unions seems the only feasible way to stave off large-scale firings.

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