After a marathon debate, the Anne Arundel County Council approved legislation late last night giving members authority to potentially restore wage cuts proposed by County Executive Robert R. Neall.
Their action sets up a confrontation with Mr. Neall and marks the first major defeat of his 11 months in office.
The 5-2 vote split along party lines, with GOP council members Carl "Dutch" Holland, R-3rd, and Diane Evans, R-5th, dissenting in support of fellow Republican Mr. Neall.
During the normal budget process, the County Council cannot add money to Mr. Neall's budget, except for education. The bill approved by the council last night would allow members to add money to any agency.
Mr. Neall said he will meet today with county lawyers before deciding what action to take against the bill, which he labeled unconstitutional. "They don't have this authority," Mr. Neall said. "An ordinance passed by the County Council cannot supersede the charter."
Mr. Neall had initially proposed legislation to reopen the county budget process. The bill was needed because a 1988 charter amendment inadvertently stripped the executive of his authority reduce the budget.
But the Democratic council members, led by David G. Boschert, D-4th, said the bill will give them equal power to decide how best to cut the budget to cover a $20.8 million deficit. Mr. Neall has given employees a choice of taking either a 3 percent pay cut or five unpaid holidays. Many of the county unions are expected to announce their preference today. If they refuse, as many as 322 employees will be laid off.
Union leaders have seen the council as their court of last resort in their efforts to fight Mr. Neall's wage concessions. Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, likened Mr. Neall to "certain dictatorships of Europe in the 1930s."
"To ask the people to take a pay cut will take food from their tables," said Barbara Remias, vice president of a union that represents school secretaries and assistants, whose pay ranges from $10,000 to $20,000.
County employees have urged Mr. Neall and council members to find other ways to balance the budget deficit, which was caused largely by a reduction in aid by the state.
But administration officials insist that they cannot maintain the county's current level of services without touching salaries and benefits, which comprise 80 percent of the $616 million budget.
County lawyers told council members last night that Mr. Neall could choose to ignore the council's action and simply not fund ** any item that the council adds to the budget. That increases the likelihood that the issue may ultimately be resolved in a court of law.
"It's an attempt to inject themselves into the process improperly," Mr. Neall said. "I hope it wasn't partisan."
Mr. Boschert insisted his amendment was constitutional. "I still feel my amendment upholds the charter in its original intent," he said. "We're just carrying out the duties and powers we were sworn to uphold."