New county executives taking no-credit budget course

November 17, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Call it a blatant example of freshman hazing.

Much to their chagrin, suburban Baltimore's incoming class of county executives jumped from freshman orientation last December to Advanced Budget Juggling 400 this year, strictly a no-credit course.

While their predecessors could spend their days in the %o cash-flush 1980s dreaming of bright, shiny new projects and programs, the three Republicans and one Democrat elected last fall find themselves cutting back with a vengeance.

"It's not been pleasant," said Howard County's Charles I. Ecker, a Republican winding up his first year as executive. "I knew coming in that finances would be our biggest problem. I just didn't think it would be this deep."

In Anne Arundel County, Republican Robert R. Neall has drawn the wrath of county employees and teachers by announcing they had a choice, a pay cut or furloughs, to help balance his budget.

Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, a Democrat, received little praise when she decided last April to freeze salaries.

The situation is probably worse for Mr. Ecker, who laid off 40 Howard County employees in the spring and expects more layoffs.

Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, a Republican, has had to delay millions in capital programs, freeze hiring and offer early retirement incentives to avoid taking similar action.

"We're on the downward swing of the economic roller coaster," Mr. Hayden said.

"This is not a time to spend more money. This is a time . . . to decide, how can we preserve the services we offer and cut costs?"

Slumping tax revenue, increased demand for services and state budget cuts are to blame for most of the executives' woes. Last

month, the General Assembly approved legislation cutting aid to Maryland's 24 subdivisions by $180 million, a jolt for counties already coping with their own shortfalls.

For the first time since World War II, county governments are shrinking rather than growing. That has forced county executives to become miserly accountants, poring over their budgets for a thousand dollars here or a thousand dollars there to bridge the revenue gaps.

"The '80s were the glory years for county government," said former Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer, now state transportation secretary. "I don't envy them now."

About 75 percent of the average county's budget goes to personnel costs -- salaries, pensions and other benefits -- so the first group to feel the pinch has been county employees. Statewide, only seven counties gave their workers cost-of-living raises this year, none in the Baltimore area. Some counties -- including Harford and Howard -- did not even give workers merit or in-grade raises this year. While Mr. Neall in Anne Arundel has been the first to seek wage concessions from employees, some others, including Mr. Ecker, are expected to follow suit soon.

"You won't be able to evaluate who among us did the best job, or who ended up with the most layoffs, or who did the most unpopular things until the end of the fiscal year" on June 30, Mr. Neall said. "I don't expect to be the only [county executive] to furlough county employees."

Nevertheless, Mr. Neall has drawn the wrath of his local teachers union, which has begun daily picketing of his offices in Annapolis. The teachers' ire has been magnified by the fact that Mr. Neall sought -- and the state legislature granted -- authority to force cuts in public school systems, the single largest component of any county budget.

Union leaders complain that Mr. Neall and other executives were too quick to seek employee concessions and should be lobbying for the more permanent albeit less politically popular solution: a tax increase.

"No one denies that the fiscal crisis is real, but there's a lack of people saying this is the result not only of our economic situation but because of a tax structure inadequate to maintain services," said V. Thomas Gray II, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Teachers Association. "It's been a cut-and-slash mentality rather than a rethinking of the whole thing."

Salary cuts have not been the only way counties have slashed budgets. Some methods have been downright creative and, according to some budget analysts, long overdue.

In Baltimore County, for instance, Mr. Hayden has reduced excess telephone lines to government offices, yanked out car phones, nearly halved the number of county-owned vehicles and converted employee health insurance coverage to a self-insurance fund.

Through a series of budget reductions including freezes on hiring and procurement, Harford County Executive Rehrmann created a nearly $10 million surplus in her fiscal 1991 budget that has helped the county avoid furloughs and layoffs in fiscal 1992. "The lesson is to take action early. The further you go along in the fiscal year, the harder this becomes," Mrs. Rehrmann said. "We took a lot of criticism early, but people support us now."

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