The winds of a budget battle started blowing across the county Monday shortly after County Executive Charles I. Ecker sent the council a $270.2 million proposed operating budget for fiscal 1993.
The proposal holds the line on services and does not increase local taxes. Itprovides raises for all but about 60 of the county's 1,760 non-school-system employees.
While it is $6.8 million less than department heads asked for, itis still $15.3 million more than their budgets were reduced during fiscal 1992.
Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, was "ecstatic" about the proposal, and Councilman C. Vernon Gray said it was "the best we could hope for or expect, given the last couple of years."
So where's the rub?
It's within the county work force. At issue is the question of just compensation for what Ecker has called "a wonderful attitude and great cooperation" over the past year.
School system employees were stripped of 6 percent raises they had negotiated as part of a three-year contract. Other county employees suffered a 2 percentpay cut from a five-day unpaid furlough in late December and early January.
Ecker included in his proposal a 2.5 percent raise for non-union employees who are not yet paid top scale and whose work is rated satisfactory by their supervisors. The raises would take effect onthe anniversary of each worker's employment.
Contracts with employee unions are still being negotiated. Leaders of the corrections andblue-collar unions have accepted Ecker's proposal, but the rank and file have yet to vote on it. Police officers, who asked not to be identified, say negotiations with their union are at an impasse. Negotiations with the fire union did not begin until yesterday.
Regardless of how those negotiations turn out, Ecker said he will not propose a tax increase. If higher salaries are mandated because of union contracts, Ecker said he will cut from other areas of the budget.
Ecker said he would let the school board make its own decisions about salaries. He nonetheless recommended that the board offer its employees raises similar to what he has proposed for non-school employees.
Until fiscal 1992, non-school employees with 12 to 15 years service received a $1,000 bonus annually, and those with 16 or more received a $2,000 annual bonus. Ecker's proposal restores those bonuses.
Somemembers of the council suggested Monday that Ecker may have erred inreinstating the bonuses. Gray said length-of-service bonuses should not be given annually, but should come only once or twice in an employee's career.
Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, and Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, tended to agree.
The general public didn't realize that bonuseswere going be paid every year when the council radically altered thecounty government's pay structure in 1989, Feaga said. "It was argued at the time that a lump sum was cheaper to the county" than paying long-time employees a 2.5 percent surcharge on their weekly salaries,said Pendergrass. "It was a compromise. We were told it was one timeonly."
No way, said Al White, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local, representing 300 blue-collar workers in the public works and parks departments.
"People do a lot of foolish things, but they're not crazy," White said. "We gave up 2.5 percent each week in return for the bonus. We expresslyasked if it was annual. It would have been foolish for us to give up2.5 percent a week for a one-time-only bonus."
Ecker's budget keeps the property tax rate at $2.59 per $100 of assessed value. At thatrate, the owner of a home assessed at $150,000 would pay property taxes of $1,663.
Ecker also held the line on the piggyback tax rate,the percentage of state income taxes collected for local use. It is now 50 percent, but could go as high as 60 percent.
Except for theeducation portion of the budget, the Howard County Council can only accept or cut what the executive proposes. With the education portion, it can restore funds cut below what the Board of Education requested.
To restore those funds, the council can take one of two actions. It can cut other portions of the budget by the same amount it wantsto raise the education portion, or it can increase the property tax or piggyback rates to the level needed to cover the increase.
The council said it would consider the longevity issue at its Monday night work session. It will hold a public hearing May 2 on the education portion of the budget. Initial public hearings on the remaining portions will be held May 5 and May 11.