Neall readies budget Cuts are certain, but residents are resisting

February 28, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

As County Executive Robert R. Neall puts together his 1994 budget, he knows he's in for a bumpy ride.

In a speech last week, he compared his experience as head of a government that has weathered $65 million in cuts in state money and now has to contend with a property tax cap with the pilot of a plane that has a leaky fuel tank and nowhere to land.

"The crew is panicking, the passengers in the back are starting to throw up, the cargo is shifting and you have a lot of people trying to figure out what to do," Mr. Neall said. To make matters worse, "I'm getting mixed signals from the control tower."

Those mixed signals were clearly communicated during four budget hearings last week: his constituents, the voters of Anne Arundel County, may have approved a cap on the growth in property tax revenue in November. But at the hearings, they were not just demanding the same level of county services; they wanted more.

Despite Mr. Neall's invitation to suggest what areas should be cut -- he set up two easels on either side of his table, one for cuts, the other for programs he should save -- few responded. Only five ideas, including raising user or developer impact fees and seeking more grants, were suggested during the four meetings.

Instead, a procession of speakers asked him to maintain funding for day care, youth sports and recreation programs, teen grants, hospices and programs for the handicapped. They requested more money for elementary school staffing, school construction and renovation, parks, libraries and teacher raises.

"I'll leave it to your imagination as to how much action we saw on the [cuts] side," he told the crowd. "People want more. The message has not sunk in to the people yet. They still say they want more from county government."

For many, disappointment over this budget is inevitable. Mr. Neall already knows he will lose $10 million because of the tax cap and another $15 million because the state will no longer pay Social Security taxes for teachers, librarians and community college employees. An additional cut of $3.5 million is possible if the state kills keno.

But even with the mounting fiscal problems, it appears the county will be spared the gut-wrenching cuts that Mr. Neall's colleague to the north, Roger B. Hayden, had to impose in Baltimore County.

Mr. Neall's flight plan for the rest of the ride is a reorganization and consolidation of county government that will result in more than 100 layoffs and save $10 million, combined with cuts in many programs near and dear to the hearts of taxpayers. He acknowledges that some of his program "is pretty grisly," although he insists that doing nothing would be worse.

But Mr. Hayden was forced to close nine libraries, four senior citizen centers and two health centers. He laid off close to 400 employees.

"We are not looking at some of the 400 layoffs you read about in Baltimore County," Dennis Parkinson, Mr. Neall's chief administrative officer, told the County Council at last week's hearing on the reorganization bill. "We are not looking at shutting libraries down. We are not looking at eliminating uniformed officers."

Both Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties will eliminate about 6 percent of their work forces. Baltimore County's work force is about twice the size of Anne Arundel County's 4,000 employees, so it follows that Mr. Hayden would have to lay off more employees to achieve a similar percentage of savings. But about half of Anne Arundel County's eliminated positions are vacant, while nearly 70 percent of Baltimore County's are filled.

Mr. Neall's reorganization is a "top-down approach," Mr. Parkinson said. Most layoffs will come from the upper administrative levels of six county departments that are being consolidated into three.

About 100 of the 250 positions to be cut are white-collar administrative-level jobs. As a result, Mr. Neall is not planning to drastically cut services, as Mr. Hayden was forced to. In contrast, only 25 positions cut in Baltimore County paid more than $50,000.

Opposition to Mr. Neall's reorganization plan has come from two sectors so far. One is the labor union representing clerical and secretarial employees, who are likely to be hit hard by layoffs.

"We are not opposed to reorganization of county government if it saves money," said Lee Lyons, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2563, which represents the 385 secretarial and clerical workers. "We are opposed if it is at the cost of any of our members."

Mr. Neall expected that opposition. But the second source is hard for the executive to fathom: community athletic organizations are concerned that the transfer of Recreation and Parks maintenance employees to Public Works will result in a deterioration of playing fields.

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