Ecker Says County Employees, Not Public, Will Feel Latest Cuts

November 20, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

The county's latest round of budget cuts will "cut deeply into the pockets of county employees" but will have minimal effect on the public, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday.

Most noticeable to the public will be the switch to one-day-a-week trash collection in April -- a move expected to save $200,000 the remainder of this fiscal year and $800,000 the next. Trash is now collected twice a week.

Few services will be reduced as a result of an unpaid five-day furlough for all employees including himself, Ecker said, because threeof the furlough days would come on holidays -- Dec. 25, Jan. 1 and Jan. 15 -- when county government would be shut down anyway, except for essential services. The other two furlough days would be Dec. 23 and 24.

Ecker wants all public safety furloughs to come only on holidays. He plans to leave the question of which holidays up to public safety department heads.

Meanwhile, street sweeping has already been eliminated to save $75,000, and libraries will open one hour later to save $38,000. The library board will meet today to determine when the new hours will begin.

Ecker also plans to raise $30,000 by charging a parking fee at the south entrance to Centennial Park. The $3 per car charge will take effect in the spring. It is the only revenue-producing idea Ecker included in his latest plan to balance the fiscal 1992 budget.

To achieve that balance by June 30 as the charter requires, Ecker must trim $14.5 million from an already austere budget. Until last month, Ecker had plans to deal with a $9.5 million deficit without furloughing personnel.

But between October and November, the county lost another $5 million in anticipated revenue -- $3 million alone from lower-than-expected property and state income taxes.

To make up for the $5 million loss, Ecker imposed the five-day furlough on all employees, implemented a hiring freeze, defered equipment purchases, lowered the temperature in county buildings to 68 degrees and reduced by two-thirds the number of employees taking cars home. He is requiring the remaining one-third to pay commuting costs. These cuts were in addition to items like trash pickup that affect the public directly.

Ecker said his cuts reflect an economy that is going down.

"I believe we will never return to the glory years of the'80s," he said, adding that he expects economic hard times "maybe all through the '90s."

Ecker said he revised his latest budget to include a $500,000 surplus to satisfy Wall Street bond rating agencies and to absorb additional shortfalls. "We don't want to do this again," he said of the budget trimming.

Ecker also said he will be calling for an economic summit to define what government can pay for. He said he will appoint a "Little Grace Commission" to spend six months investigating government and making recommendations about how to improve service and reduce costs.

For the short term, Ecker did not rule out a property tax increase for fiscal 1993. He said that layoffs could still be a possibility.

"I did not want to lay off anybody, Idid not want to furlough anybody," to achieve the current cuts, Ecker said. "We scraped and pinched everywhere we could to achieve the cuts without layoffs."

Ecker also plans to offer early retirement toeligible employees.

"I do not want to force anyone to retire," Ecker said. "This option is for the employee's benefit if they want it."

Ecker acknowledged that county employees are bearing the brunt of the cut. He praised them for the "outstanding manner" in which theyresponded to hardships earlier when 40 were laid off and no one received raises of any sort.

Howard's employees are faring worse than those in nearby counties, Ecker said, because most county employees elsewhere received some kind of pay increase.Here, the effect of the wage freeze amounted to a 3 percent to 6 percent pay cut for nearly one-fourth of the county's employees, Ecker said. The five-day furloughwill take still another 2 percent from their pay checks.

Despite that loss, most county employees expressed relief at Ecker's announcement.

"We all have jobs, and that's the main thing," a jubilant employee said after the announcement. "I only wish they would put the furlough days at the end of the week rather than at the beginning."

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, is pleased that there were no layoffs. Gray said the furlough dates Ecker proposed are by no means fixed, since the council must approve Ecker's plan. Gray wants at least two of the furlough days unrelated to holidays.

"The citizensneed to know that there is some diminution of services," Gray said. "Some citizens may feel we are not in a real crisis. In their eyes, any cuts without a diminution of services proves there is too much fat, when in fact, we are in a fiscal crisis."

Gray said while there may be some trade-offs with Ecker about specifics, he is "very supportive generally" of what Ecker proposes. "He's done a very commendablejob in a very, very difficult situation," Gray said.

Police and fire union officials indicated at a council hearing on the furlough bill Monday that they were not so pleased.

Sean Kelly, president of the firefighters union, expressed concern that a five-day furlough would decrease the number of personnel available to respond to an emergency. Ecker disagreed, saying the fire service would have the normal complement of holiday personnel working on a furlough day.

Both Howard County Police Association president Dale Hill and Kelly want their unions exempted from furloughs.

"There are some items we still need to work out, but I am confident we will be able to reach an agreement," Ecker said. "I am a firm believer that reasonable people can always reach a mutually agreeable compromise."

If the public safety unions turn down the agreement, layoffs are the only alternative, Ecker said.

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