Right Moves in Arundel

November 13, 1991

In a sea of dwindling choices, most of Anne Arundel County's employee unions have made the right one -- holding on to their members' jobs.

Hundreds of government employees have opted to take unpaid vacations or a 3 percent pay cut through the current budget year at the request of County Executive Robert R. Neall. There is a case to be made that these concessions -- aimed at closing a $20.8 million revenue gap -- were made under duress. They were. From the outset, layoffs were the clear alternative.

But this misses the point. In a recession, job security is the overriding issue. Most of the county's non-education workers recognized this. Police accepted five vacation days without pay, Firefighters, sheriff's deputies and blue collar workers opted for a 3 percent pay cut. For reasons not yet clear, only one county union -- the Fraternal Order of Anne Arundel Detention Center Officers -- chose to sacrifice three of its 98 members to layoffs. What this demonstrates, clearly and emphatically, is that rhetoric flies out the window when the choice is putting food on the table or joining the swelling ranks of the unemployed. In cases such as this, the alternative is no alternative.

Mr. Neall has been roundly criticized for heavy-handedness. In a rare and ill-advised act of defiance instigated by county unions, the county council last week arrogated to itself the power to add to any department's spending -- something it couldn't do before except for education. Interpretation by Arundel's legal department, however, casts considerable doubt on the legality of such a move. And the council -- mollified by Mr. Neall's assurances that it will be included in the decision-making process -- doesn't seem all that eager to use it. In any case, the rank and file apparently were unwilling to count on the council to save their jobs.

Arundel's school unions are another matter. So far, they have rejected the Board of Education's plan to furlough teachers to meet a $5.1 million spending cut ordered by Mr. Neall. They claim $7 million could be trimmed without hurting classroom instruction. The board says this is ridiculous. To what extent the budget is cut and whether the council restores those cuts remain to be seen.

But the events of the past week show that most Arundel county workers are willing to make sensible, if painful, decisions about their future. It's time education employees joined them.

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