Failure on budget puts leaders in limbo Localities don't know the size of state cuts.

April 08, 1992|By From Staff Reports Sandy Banisky, Larry Carson, Meredith Schlow, James M. Coram, Timothy Wheeler and David Michael Ettlin contributed to this story.

The General Assembly's failure to agree on a fiscal 1993 budget has left local government leaders across Maryland in limbo -- work on their own budgets is frozen by uncertainty over the size of the hit they will take from the state government.

The worst-case scenario is a "doomsday" budget cutback. The last version the legislature considered would hack $95 million in local aid, on top of $250 million cut already. It would leave local leaders deciding between hefty property tax increases, drastic service cuts and layoffs.

Even less drastic cuts in local aid that might emerge from the legislature will leave mayors, county executives and commissioners with nightmarish choices on spending and local tax increases.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was still pacing the floor of the State House early yesterday -- 45 minutes after the Assembly session should have ended, had the lawmakers been able to meet their constitutional obligation to enact a budget.

Mayor Schmoke and county government colleagues were desperately trying to make lawmakers see the devastating effects their indecision could have.

"When I told one legislator that 900 people would definitely lose their jobs under this scenario, his response was, 'Good!'

"Although people understand there may be some pain, they seem willing to have it inflicted. Until they're convinced we've reduced government sufficiently, they just don't want any new taxes," Mr. Schmoke said.

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, a fiscal conservative, expressed fears yesterday that the "doomsday" ultimatum posed to the legislature by Gov. William Donald Schaefer might prove even worse than anticipated -- that the slash-and-burn scenario overestimates state revenues.

"I'm going to have to put together my own doomsday contingencies," Mr. Neall said, noting that because of the uncertainty he would have to "hedge" on the county budget he must submit next month to the County Council.

Among Mr. Neall's dilemmas is a pledge he had made to restore in July the 3 percent pay cut he squeezed from the county's 4,000 workers when he cut the budget in December -- a promise that the doomsday scenario could make much harder to fulfill.

Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden was scheduled to present his budget to the County Council April 14, the deadline under a County Charter provision.

But Deputy County Attorney Stanley Shapiro said the charter language is not mandatory, and Mr. Hayden expected a delay in the schedule while he contemplates the more serious problem -- dealing with threatened cuts in state aid.

Budget director Fred Homan said the county has already absorbed $42 million in state budget cuts and $27 million in reduced revenues from the recession -- before doomsday.

Mr. Hayden said Baltimore County government is operating at a bare-bones level, with the damage so far mostly concealed from public view.

The county's job freeze and early retirement incentive have cut more than 1,000 county jobs from a work force of 8,000, and the Police Department has been left with 150 of its 1,500 positions unfilled.

Even with an increase in the local share of the piggyback state income taxes, there will be no money for new teachers for the 4,000 new students expected in September, Mr. Hayden said. School Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel said the doomsday cuts would spell "disaster" for the system.

They didn't believe it would happen in Howard County, either.

"We always felt in the bottom of our hearts that at the last minute, they would get together and pass something," said budget director Raymond S. Wacks.

The most immediate problem facing County Executive Charles I. Ecker is a legal requirement that he submit a budget to the council no later than April 20.

The council is required to pass the budget by June 1.

Also in limbo are labor negotiations between the county government and Board of Education.

Mr. Ecker and School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey have pledged to try to give employees salary increases after a year in which they received none.

And most employees suffered pay losses through five furlough days.

Harford County officials feared potential losses of more than $10 million -- $6 million of it from aid to schools, $3.1 million in general aid, and $1 million in police aid from the state.

NB County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and school officials, like

those in neighboring Baltimore County, face the double whammy of a growing student population and the possibility of no money to hire more teachers, build an elementary school or expand an overcrowded middle school.

Ms. Rehrmann said that if the doomsday budget is adopted, she would look at "revenue enhancements."

While she would not offer specifics, the executive noted that "the last thing you want to do is raise the property tax rate."

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