Dressed in a red jacket and hat, Robert R. Neall looked like the jolly old elf himself as he spoke to members of the Anne Arundel Trade Council. His message was less than merry.
A fairy godmother, some magic dust and elves turned the county executive into Old St. Nick Friday, as Neall helped the business group kick off holiday charity programs.
But the fantasy props could not transform Neall's breakfast message. The subject was the local economy.
When he took office last year, "I could never have predicted the lack of performance of the local economy," in a region long considered recession-proof, Neall said. "Our major employer, government, is experiencing the hardest times ithas ever had."
Neall confirmed his earlier prediction, telling the trade council the county will suffer further cuts in state aid, between $8 million and $10 million.
"These cuts will hurt, but because of the kind of budget passed earlier this week, we can handle them with the minimum impact to services and to the general public," Neallsaid.
He added that county government is in "excellent shape to meet the next round of cuts."
They come as part of an expected additional $90 million loss of state aid to local governments, which state officials announced Thursday. The cuts will make wage concessions acertainty for county employees.
On Monday, the County Council passed Neall's $598.5 million revised fiscal 1992 budget. He had rewritten the original $616.6 million budget because the county lost $14.2 million in state aid and $6.6 million worth of local tax income.
But in a compromise with council members, Neall had agreed that if the county escapes further cuts in state aid, he would restore $6.6 million in wage cuts for 11,000 county and school employees.
As she introduced Neall, speaking on the anniversary of his first year in office, Trade Council President Kathryn J. Dahl joked that he'd come to explain "why the economy has gone downhill since he took office."
Reviewing his first year, Neall told the group the county managed to end the last fiscal year in the black by slowing expenses and freezing hiring last year.
But this year, even after adopting a smaller budget than last year's, the county suffered sharp cuts in state aid, leading to the current financial crisis.
Neall promised a modest budget in fiscal year 1993, along with new looks at starting public-private partnerships, consolidating services, reducing manpower and marketing the BWI Airport area.
"It's going to take two or three years to sort this out," he said.
During his speech, the executive commended the trade group for launching S.P.A.R.K. (Sharing People, Aid, Resources and Knowledge), a year-round, umbrella program to help needypeople in the community.
"Even white-collar professionals, who themselves have traditionally helped the needy, can find themselves on the other side of the fence this year," said Jeanette Wessel, trade council executive vice president.
Through S.P.A.R.K., business people will raise money during the next few weeks for the county's Holiday Sharing program. Next year, they plan to donate professional legal or financial advising services, professional work clothes for graduates of job training programs and items for the county Department of Social Services back-to-school bazaar.