Long-playing Budget Crisis To Be Held Over Into 1992

The Top Storiesof 1991

December 29, 1991|By Elise Armacost

Hold the champagne. Put those party hats away, and don't bother buying confetti. Economically speaking, the new year doesn't promise to be any happier than the old one for Anne Arundel government.

After a year of budget cuts, wage concessions and layoff threats, "it's still not over," said Louise Hayman, press secretary for County Executive Robert R. Neall.

In 1991, the county budget was the biggest story of the year, dominating headlines since last winter, when Neall persuaded county employees to give up their cost-of-living raises. The budget crisis assumed historic proportions in October, when the state legislature cut more deeply into aid for local jurisdictions than anyone, including Neall, had anticipated.

As leaders from other counties groused about the reductions, Neall gained statewide attention by successfully asking the General Assembly for temporary expansion of local governments'power. The legislation allowed Neall and other county executives to cut the budgets of school boards and other quasi-state agencies.

With newly acquired authority over school budgets in hand, Neall then reopened Anne Arundel's entire budget process, an unprecedented move.

He told 11,000 school and county employees to choose between giving up 3 percent of their pay or layoffs. He took a 12 percent pay cuthimself, docked his staff 5 percent and forced out three high-ranking appointees as part of a restructuring of the executive branch.

Neall ran into stiff opposition from county workers -- especially teachers, who are still blasting Neall for "balancing the budget on the backs of employees," a quote that has been repeated so often that it no longer can be attributed to any one person.

He also wrangled with County Council members, who argued that if the executive was going to have unprecedented powers, so should they. The council passed legislation expanding its authority beyond that allowed by the county charter but never used its new power.

On Dec. 2, the council approvedNeall's new, reduced budget without a change. His original $616.6 million spending plan had been chopped by $18 million to $598.5 million. Some $6.6 million of the reductions came out of employees' pockets.

In a last-minute compromise to persuade the council to pass the budget, Neall agreed to give the wage concessions back if the county suffered no further state cuts. But that possibility disappeared one week after the budget was approved, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed another round of cuts to local jurisdictions.

Anne Arundel has already absorbed $17.2 million worth of state cuts this year. If the General Assembly approves the governor's plan, the county wouldlose another $14.9 million.

County employees can forget about getting back the money they've lost, Neall has said. Not only that, but they probably also will have to give up cost-of-living increases again next year.

"He's just about ruled those out," Hayman said last week.

At a planning retreat on budget priorities earlier this month, Neall made it clear that cost-saving measures for fiscal 1993 probably will be more severe than they have been this year, Hayman said.

This year, workers had to choose between layoffs and wage concessions. But next year, some county employees may find that they have no choice.

So far, Neall has been able to pinch pennies without eliminating any programs. But in the fiscal 1993 budget, which will be presented in May, "we may have to eliminate some things," Hayman said. "And if we eliminate programs, it's necessary to eliminate the people who go with them."

How severely programs and employees will be affected depends on whether state lawmakers approve the entire $14.9 million proposed by the governor as Anne Arundel's share during the coming round of budget cuts. If the amount is substantially lower than that, "we'll probably be able to muddle through" without layoffs or a substantial decrease in services, Hayman said.

If not, the people who live in and work for Anne Arundel County very likely will find little to celebrate in the new year ahead.

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