As County Executive Charles I. Ecker stepped into the hallway outside his office Thursday, an employee grabbed him by the arm.
"It's probably awful to say this," she told him, "but I really appreciated the days off."
She was talking about the four-day, unpaid furlough county employees were required to take after Christmas. She was also confirming a view Ecker had expressed a few minutes earlier.
"Most employees appreciated the time off" despite not getting paid for it, he said. "Itwas a nice break for them."
By furloughing the county's 1,600 employees four days after Christmas and again on Jan. 20, Ecker will cut$1 million from the county's expected deficit of $14.5 million.
If the public was inconvenienced by the government shutdown, it did not show up in either the backlog of work or the number of complaints.
Part of the reason, Ecker said, is that not everything was closed at once. The county landfill remained open, as did the courts. Policeand firefighters will take their furlough days later in the year.
Only a dozen people complained "directly or indirectly" about the closing of the county office building, Ecker said. Most of those wanted"to pay a bill, record a lot, or get a building inspected."
Apparently, they succeeded. County workers at the departments of Inspections, Licenses and Permits; Planning and Zoning; and Recreation and Parks said traffic was "normal" Thursday when people returned to work.
Short lines at the planning and zoning counter probably had more todo with the economy than the furlough, said planner Tony Wilson. "There haven't been any long lines" at the counter for several months, he said.
Most changes sought are not for large developments, but for small items, like an addition to a home, Wilson said.
"The crunch is hitting the upper middle class. There is a new quest for home occupations. Parents are selling their homes and moving in with their children, or the kids can't find work and are coming back home."
Avis L. Corbin, chief of the Division of Licenses and Permits, told a similar story. The busiest time in her department, Corbin said, was the Monday and Tuesday before Christmas. People called her boss, director David M. Hammerman, during the unpaid holiday, Corbin said, but when the office reopened Thursday, things were routine.
Registrationclerk Elaine Sauk said things were hectic at the recreation and parks department counter, but not because of the days off. It's normal this time of of year as people inquire about the department's popular children's programs. Registration for those programs starts tomorrow.
As for employees themselves, Wilson's statement that "it's good tobe back at work" was a nearly universal sentiment among returning county employees.
"Most of the people liked the time off, but are not thrilled about having it without pay," Sauk said.
Regardless, most employees were happy that it was furloughs
and not layoffs, Corbin said. "We're glad to come back to a job. Some people aren't so fortunate."
Ecker hopes to keep it that way, but is making no promises. He is sweating out the opening of the General Assembly Wednesday.Ecker hopes the legislature will vote not go along with Gov. WilliamDonald Schaefer's plan to cut another $8.2 million in county aid.
"Services are already down 19 percent from a year ago," Ecker said. "Any further reductions would be devastating. We cannot raise revenues. There is nothing left to reduce. We can only eliminate."