Baltimore Co. workers fear more budget cuts

November 30, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Pick your budget-cutting poison and Baltimore County' anxious workers probably already have it on their list.

Teachers are worried about furloughs, police about cancellation of this year's only recruit class. Firefighters' morale "is at an abysmal point," said their union leader. Then there are the rumors about a 3 percent salary rollback, or another round of early retirement incentives, or no more overtime.

Questioned late last week, County Executive Roger B. Hayden had his stock answer to such speculation.

"There's nothing off the table," he repeated, refusing to confirm or deny any of the rumors. He said he may announce some cuts this week or next.

State legislators may be satisfied that they have solved the state's second annual budget crisis by permanently shifting $147 million worth of Social Security payments for teachers, community college instructors and librarians to local governments. But county workers now are waiting for the financial ax to fall -- on them.

Loss of state aid

Baltimore County will lose $27.5 million in state aid this year -- $20.6 million of it from the latest legislative action.

The county has a $9 million rainy day fund, and a $5 million surplus, but Budget Director Fred Homan said county officials are reluctant to use the rainy day fund to offset state cuts.

They fear losing the county's high bond rating, and a rating change would cost millions on bond borrowing in years to come.

The state cuts are permanent, Mr. Homan said, and bond-rating houses in New York are looking for permanent solutions, not one-time gimmicks.

After weathering last year's five-day furlough, huge manpower gaps in county departments due to a limited job freeze, and no across-the-board pay raises since a 4 percent raise Jan. 1, 1991, county workers aren't looking forward to more bad news.

"I'd rather have the furloughs" instead of a wage rollback, said Howard Wexler, who delivers mail to various county offices in the Towson government complex. "A rollback, you never get that back."

Mr. Wexler has developed a reputation over the last 25 years of knowing everything that's happening in county government before it's announced. But he's tired of everyone on his rounds asking what he knows about the cuts.

"People ask me, but I don't know," he said, smiling. "I don't know nothing."

Adding to the anxiety is Mr. Hayden's close-to-the-vest process of making decisions. He has not included any of the employees' labor group leaders in his internal decision-making process, leaving union leaders with nothing to tell workers except "wait and see."

The rumor mill

This absence of information has made the rumor mill work all the harder.

For example, Lt. L. Timothy Caslin, president of Police FOP Lodge 4, said he doesn't believe the rumor about the police recruit class -- due to graduate Feb. 1 -- being laid off. The class was formed after Chief Cornelius J. Behan protested to the County Council in May that the 150 vacancies, a 10 percent drop in manpower, were causing the department to slide toward mediocrity.

Lieutenant Caslin said the new recruits will replace only 30 officers who have retired since July 1. None of the vacancies Chief Behan mentioned in May will be filled.

"We're just keeping our heads above water now," Lieutenant Caslin said.

Kevin O'Connor, president of Firefighters Local 1311, said county workers are "fed up with having to offset county budget problems" with their own pay or jobs. He also complained about labor group leaders being left out of the decision-making process.

"We have a feeling that we are an afterthought," he said, describing past last-minute courtesy briefings on decisions already made. "That's no way to deal with employees."

Morris W. Barrett, head of the county's white-collar union, said, "People are anxious. . . . There's a wide gamut of emotions."

Furloughs feared

County teachers, who know most of the school budget goes to pay their salaries, are most worried about another round of furloughs. The maximum possible school share of the cuts is $8.7 million. School superintendent Stuart Berger has said furloughs could be a possibility if he has to absorb all $8.7 million this year.

The chance of furloughs makes teachers union President Ed Veit furious. "The whole idea of furloughs is repulsive," he said last week, threatening to file a grievance and take the matter to court if furloughs are announced.

Amid all the worry, not everyone is upset. Take Beecher Johnson, a stoic maintenance worker in the old Towson courthouse that houses the offices of the county executive and the County Council.

"I ain't worried about it," he said, pointing to one of several hundred heating and cooling units in the building. "There's a lot of very expensive machinery in here, and somebody's got to keep it running."

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