Ecker plan may lead to layoffs 12 percent cut in spending over 20 months proposed

Attrition rate is low

Public services likely face reduction as well

November 05, 1995|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker's plan to reduce government spending by 12 percent within 20 months may lead to layoffs of county workers and cutbacks in some public services.

With 70 percent of the county's budget of $111 million for everything but schools and debt now going for wages and benefits -- a share that exceeds 90 percent in some departments -- layoffs appear unavoidable to many experienced with the county's finances.

This is particularly so given the low job attrition rate in today's slow economy and Mr. Ecker's stated reluctance to cut police and fire services.

"You have to come to people. There's just not that much other stuff in the budget," said Ned Eakle, a member of the Howard County Personnel Board and a former county administrator. "What it boils down to -- not just for us but for other departments -- you're looking at layoffs," said Sheriff Michael Chiuchiolo, whose agency is not part of the county police force.

In addition to layoffs, residents likely can expect the county to reduce some services and to increase fees for others, such as charges for sending children to summer camps in the county's parks.

The cost-cutting plan is so ambitious that County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga -- the second leading Republican in the county behind Mr. Ecker -- even has his doubts. "I don't know that we can do the 12 percent," he said. "I'm not sure its achievable but it's a good goal."

But Mr. Ecker remains committed to cutting 12 percent from the county's current budget without a drop in services by the summer of 1997.

His problem: The county's tax base is not growing as rapidly as its population, but more residents are demanding more county government services -- while remaining unwilling to pay higher taxes.

So Mr. Ecker has said the county must do more with less. He's already asked department heads to not fill vacancies, and he hopes to achieve much of the 12 percent through job attrition and not have to fire anyone.

That goal has department heads scrambling to do more with fewer workers and to cut costs wherever possible.

Consider a relatively minor cut proposed by the Department of Recreation and Parks, where the grooming of softball fields is considered an art form.

"Some of your fields might not be as good as they have been because of the budget," said John Peach, crew leader of the eight-man squad responsible for Howard's 36 fields.

To some that may seem like a dispensable service. But Mr. Peach and co-workers expect to hear plenty of complaints. "You'd think these guys were a triple-A Baltimore farm team," he says.

Of course, the issue of layoffs is more pressing for county workers. They're looming for David Hammerman, head of

Inspections, Licenses and Permits, who said he doesn't know how to reduce his budget 12 percent through cuts and by waiting for people to quit. "Then there will be layoffs," he said. "What else is there?"

The layoffs would be the second round for Howard this decade.

In 1991, Mr. Ecker laid off 29 employees, according to the county's Personnel Office. Another 21 employees took an early retirement offer that year.

Mr. Ecker also is considering offering early retirement to some county employees over the next 20 months.

But there is a limit to the amount of money Mr. Ecker can cut. He doesn't have final say over the schools budget of $171 million. He can't cut debt service payments, which this year total $34 million. That leaves a core of $111 million from which to take 12 percent.

And Mr. Ecker has said that police and fire departments budgets budgets that comprise approximately 25 percent of the $111 million -- will not suffer significant cuts.

He already has committed to hiring more police officers over the next year.

And he has said cuts from other departments may fund new public safety services.

Education and public safety: "Let's not kid ourselves. Those are the priorities," said Jeffrey Bourne, county parks chief.

Mr. Ecker would take the 12 percent cuts solely out of the $111 million and return the money to government -- to pay for yearly state-ordered increases in education and possibly pay for new services, such as trash pickup or more police officers.

So some departments -- that do things like clean the snow off streets, maintain parks and regulate development -- likely will have to cut more than 12 percent.

"What Chuck has done," said Joseph Rutter, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, "is hit us [department directors] upside the head with a 2-by-4 and say 'Wake up.' "

An analysis of the county's budget shows just how vulnerable county workers are to layoffs. The county has eight large agencies spending more than 80 percent of their budgets on wages.

Mr. Ecker maintains he can cut much of the 12 percent through attrition. But with an average cost of $45,000 per worker, 296 positions -- from a county total of 1,850 -- would have to become vacant through attrition to achieve the entire 12 percent cut.

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