For just a moment Monday, it looked as though County Executive Robert R. Neall -- who knew what he wanted and seemed so adept at getting it during this financial crisis -- was finally being put in his place.
After hours of debate over Neall's revised, reduced fiscal 1992 budget, the County Council handed out a photocopied letter bearing the executive's signature, in which he promised to restore $6.6 millionin employee wage concessions if the county escapes further cuts in state aid. If the state cuts less than $6.6 million, Neall promised togive back the difference.
To council members reluctant to confront 11,000 school and countyemployees, the letter was a meaningful compromise that made Neall's $598.5 million budget, reduced from $616.6 million, something they could live with.
"He made a concession," said Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, who, along with Councilman George F. Bachman, D-Linthicum, was prepared to vote Neall's budget down.
Neall had lobbied hard to get workers to agree to give up 3 percent of their pay. He did not want to sign the letter. "Isigned it to get the seven votes,"he said, after the council approved his budget Monday night.
But in signing the letter, did Neall really give up that much?
As the executive sees it, the letter was a means to an end, a paper compromise that gave skittish council members "some comfort level" and a measure of political protection from disgruntled government workers. Barring an economic miracle, he said, the promise he made probably never will have to be kept.
With state government still facing a $190 million deficit, "I don't have any doubt as to what the state is going to do," Neall said. "It's still my firm belief we need those wage concessions to get through this fiscal year."
The chances of there being no further state cuts are about as great as "the sun rising in the west," he said. But if the sun does rise in the west -- if the county does end up with more money than it expected -- what has he lost if he gives some money back?
School employees, who voiced the most strident opposition to Neall's wage concessions, claimed the letter as a major victory, saying the executive finally has been forced to make salary reductions a last resort.
Against Neall's wishes, teachers and other school workers will postpone the pain until at least April, said Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. If the concessions are unavoidable, teachers would like to take two furlough days in April and two in June, he said. These would be professional workdays rather than teaching days.
At the very least, Neall's letter gives school workers time to plan in case they have to accept the concessions, Paolino said.
Cuts for other county employees will go into effect as soon as possible, Neall said. Delaying the cuts until the bitter end "is very ill-advised," he said. "But then, I'm the county executive and I'm not supposed to make school policy."
John Ogle, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 70, which represents county police officers, was unenthusiastic about Neall's compromise letter. "We didn't get anything out of it," he said.
Of all the counties that suffered state cuts, Anne Arundel was the only one that managed the crisis by reopening its entire budget process -- something that had never happened before in the county's 27-year charter history.
Without question, Neall has not endeared himself to county employees, especially teachers, during thiscontentious period. However, most political observers agree that, inthe eyes of the general public, he has weathered this crisis well.
"The mood out there is really with the county executive," Lambsaid."I think he's come out of it looking good."
From the beginning, Neall has said he had three basic goals. He wanted to minimize the effect of the economic crisis on services. He wanted to avoid layoffs byhaving all county employees accept concessions. And he wanted to handle this year's financial problems this year, rather than rely on short-term borrowing or proceeding as usual in hopes that things will get better tomorrow.
The letter he signed Monday night did not stop him from achieving any of that.
"In terms of what he set out to do," Lamb said, "he did it."
AH Wage concessions will be restored ifadditional state cuts are avoided