Welfare System for Workers? ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

March 02, 1993

As Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall refines his plan for government reorganization, county employees and unions are behaving predictably -- revving up protests; lobbying the County Council and the public; demanding elimination of spending they see as "frivolous," such as the arts, before a single position is cut. In short, they're doing what any workers would do -- look out for their own best interests and fight for their jobs.

That is their mission. It is not, however, the central concern of the public nor elected leaders. As the rhetoric intensifies throughout the budget season, officials should be careful to remember that. County government owes its 4,700 employees compassion and fairness. It owes them cost-of-living raises when possible, re-training in case of layoffs and basic human respect.

But it does not exist for their sake.

Some workers do not see that. At one of Mr. Neall's recent public meetings, a union member asked how the county could possibly justify putting people out of work when it had $150,000 to spend on the arts. "Where are our priorities?" she asked.

That is exactly the point. Keeping people employed is a union's first obligation. But should it be Mr. Neall's, or the County Council's? Isn't their top priority providing services to all county residents as efficiently and inexpensively as possible?

While they are ridiculed as frills, the arts are a service, too, just like libraries and recreation. They don't command the priority of emergency services or schools, and their minuscule funding reflects that. But if we start believing it's right to sacrifice arts funding, rec programs or whatever for the sake of keeping someone employed -- even if the job is unnecessary -- we have lost sight of what government is for.

And guess what? The pain would just be shifted elsewhere, to the musician and the curator who depend on grants to help keep them in business.

As debate over Mr. Neall's reorganization continues, we must remember: County government is not a welfare system for its workers. If the executive has identified duplicative or unnecessary jobs, they should be eliminated. The unions have every right to try to keep that from happening. But their interests and those of the people who run this government should be two different things.

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