Baltimore County's day of reckoning

February 12, 1993

Yesterday in Towson, the ax fell.

As the administration of County Executive Roger Hayden announced its long-awaited plans for layoffs and service reductions, downtown Towson was as tense as it had been in years. The anxiety was evident in the grim faces of officials and the beefed-up security around government buildings, including a helicopter keeping watch overhead.

Thank goodness someone had enough humor -- gallows variety though it was -- to put a handmade sign in the window of one county office. It read: "450 people will work for food."

Never before has the Baltimore County government had to lay off workers and slash public services. But after the free-spending days of the 1980s and the dwindling revenues of the recent recessionary years, officials determined the government had to be significantly streamlined if the county were to avoid facing massive deficits every year.

The details of that streamlining were announced yesterday by a dour Mr. Hayden: Nearly 600 positions eliminated, about 400 of them occupied by full- and part-time employees. Nine libraries and four senior centers shut down. About 150 employees laid off from the Department of Public Works, the agency hit hardest by the downsizing. And more cutbacks that will have a real impact on the quality of life for many county residents.

According to the executive, the layoffs will produce a long-term savings of $15 million, though only $1.1 million of that amount will help offset this year's deficit of $32 million.

Given that fact, why didn't the county lay off fewer employees this year and then come back in future years for more job cuts if needed? Budget Director Fred Homan, a hard-nosed pragmatist who spied the fiscal storm clouds early on, explained that the goal is no less than to reshape the government into a leaner operation so that days like yesterday won't have to be repeated.

The reductions notwithstanding, Mr. Hayden promised that the county "will still maintain a high level of service . . . for our citizens." That might have been the most unrealistic remark on a day when reality was being served in heavy doses. When hundreds of public servants are lost, service can't help but suffer.

Yet, as Messrs. Hayden, Homan and company would point out, county residents will have to get used to the new level of service now that this painful but necessary downsizing of government has finally taken place.

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