Rational Solutions in Arundel

October 31, 1991

What Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall has done in seeking minor wage concessions from teachers, police and county employees amounts to a rational, albeit painful, solution to serious and continuing financial troubles. Yet labor leaders, predictably, have gone ballistic at the mention of give-backs. They accuse Mr. Neall, author of a controversial measure giving counties temporary power to cut education budgets and salaries, of trying to balance the budget on the backs of school children and county workers.

This is a fictional rallying cry. Instead of tiresome posturing, unions should consider Mr. Neall's proposals in light of his strenuous attempts to absorb prior shortfalls and a $9 million cut in state aid. True, Anne Arundel's unions have already given up cost of living increases. But the latest round of fiscal agony in the State House resulted in an additional $8 million reduction in state aid to Anne Arundel -- a loss that Mr. Neall says the county cannot sustain without affecting services and personnel. Voters are in no mood for major tax hikes and neither are legislators. This doesn't leave much room for financial maneuvering.

What Mr. Neall suggests is minor fiscal surgery to spread the pain as broadly as possible. He's asking county workers to choose between a 3 percent pay cut until next June, five furlough days or 322 layoffs -- including 200 in the Board of Education. The option of choice based on early talks with employees is the five-day furlough, which translates into a loss of $341 before taxes for a $20,000-a-year employee. This is far more palatable than slashing salaries and firing school administrators -- steps he could take under the broadened powers given to local governments recently by the General Assembly.

Opponents castigate Mr. Neall for backing the legislature's move to pass the fiscal buck to the counties. Absent a consensus for higher taxes, though, it's difficult to see what other options are available. What he's proposing is neither Draconian nor unreasonable. What's more, he has taken a 12 percent pay cut himself and trimmed his staff of 27 to 20 -- a 25 percent cut.

At this point, teachers, police and other county workers have to make choices about their immediate future. Loud, ill-informed protests ring hollow in light of dwindling alternatives. For many, the reality of layoffs already has hit perilously close to home. Westinghouse and many small local businesses have been forced down that road with no options. County workers would be foolish to follow that route when an easier path is available.

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