Hundreds of county employees and teachers are expected to pack the County Council chambers tonight for a vote on County Executive Robert R. Neall's bill to give him and the council broad powers to cut the budget.
The bill calls for a second round of budget hearings, nearly six months after the 1991-1992 budget was passed in May. But Councilman David G. Boschert, believing Neall's budget act gives him power to veto any changes the council makes, will introduce amendments thatallow the council to increase the budget and to shift money between categories -- powers it does not have during the normal budget process.
County workers, however, say they are uncertain whether it is in their best interests to support the legislation.
"It's hard to saywhich way it will go," said Carol Ann Buttrum, president of Local 2563 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Members of her union, which represents 370 clerical and technical workers, worry that the bill could allow Neall to violate layoff procedures spelled out in the contract. Without it, they fear mass layoffs.
The 4,700-member Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County has said it will support the bill only if the council approves Boschert's amendment.
Boschert, D-Crownsville, said his proposal would require Neall to implement his budget cuts "with the concurrence of the County Council."
"We want to be a separate but equal partner in this extraordinary circumstance," Boschert said. "His bill doesn't mention the County Council. If we don't amend it, we're allowing him to have carte blanche on anything he wants to cut."
However, Neall said his bill replicates the budget process spelled out in the county charter. He said he would have no more power under the bill than he hasduring the annual budget process in May.
"I would advise Mr. Boschert to read the charter," Neall said.
A state law approved last month gives Neall and the council broad powers to reopen the budget process, cut union contracts and delete line items from the school budget -- with the exception of teachers and educational supplies -- for the remainder of the fiscal year.
But there is dispute over whether Neall's proposal gives the county the right to transcend the charter, which Boschert's amendment unquestionably does in allowing the council to alter any aspect of the budget.
"The law does not imply the county can throw the charter out the window," said Councilwoman Diane Evans, R-Arnold, who opposes Boschert's amendment.
Most councilmembers support the amendment.
"This has nothing to do with the charter," said council chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River. "If this bill is passed the way it is, there's no point in having hearings, because all we can do is pass the bill or add to the Board of Education. There's no leeway for any of our imaginative thinking."
Under current law, the council cannot add money to the departmental budget submitted by Neall. It can restore money trimmed from the education budget by the execu tive, provided money is shifted from other budget areas. The council also has the power to cut from both budgets.
A majority of council members have asked County Auditor Joseph Novotny to begin looking at the entire budget for possible savings, including cutting the pension fund or reducing the county's contribution toit. Because the county did not give cost-of-living raises this year,it put more money into the pension fund than was necessary.
"The pension fund is something we should be looking at," said Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum. "If we have contributed too much, why can't we use some of those funds for this financial crisis?"
Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, said she asked Novotny to hire an independent actuary to see whether the fund could be cut.
Neall has said repeatedly that he opposes tampering with the fund.
The council will hear testimony from union leaders and others before voting on the bill tonight. TAAAC President Tom Paolino said he plans to present the council with suggestions for $7 million worth of school budget cuts. The teachers association opposes pay cuts or layoffs until the council proves there is no other alternative.
"My only hope is that the County Council is more compassionate than Mr. Neall," Paolino said.
Neall has instructed all county employees, union and non-union, to choose between pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs by noon tomorrow.Layoffs would begin tomorrow.
County Attorney Stephen Beard said Neall can lay off employees if the council does not approve the bill.The legislation requires the approval of five of seven council members to pass.
"We believe the county executive has the authority, but we are taking the safest and most prudent course by asking the council to pass the enabling act," Beard said.
The meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Arundel Center on Calvert Street in Annapolis.