Ecker slows cutback plans Deadline to slice budget by 12 percent is extended one year

November 28, 1995|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, reacting in part to concerns from his department heads, is slowing down ambitious plans to cut county government spending two months after announcing them.

Mr. Ecker said yesterday that he now intends to extend by one year the deadline for an overall 12 percent cut in county government spending -- save for education and debt services.

The new deadline to cut $13.3 million from the county's budget is July 1, 1998, about a year later than he originally announced.

Mr. Ecker aims to make the cuts by cutting jobs through attrition. Not enough county workers are quitting now to make that possible.

In unveiling his plan two months ago, Mr. Ecker said he had spent six months putting it together. But Mr. Ecker's department heads immediately told him they would have trouble making the cuts without layoffs.

Even County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga -- the second leading Republican in the county behind Mr. Ecker -- had his doubts. "I'm not sure it's achievable but it's a good goal," he said.

Mr. Ecker repeated yesterday his desire to avoid firings of county employees. "Hopefully, there's not going to be any layoffs," he said.

But several county department heads said yesterday they remain doubtful that the spending-cut targets can be achieved without layoffs -- even with the extra year.

"You're prolonging the agony, that's all you're doing," said Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo.

The county executive announced the new deadline for achieving the 12 percent spending cuts at a staff meeting a week ago, said David Hammerman, head of Inspections, Licenses and Permits. Mr. Hammerman said yesterday the extra 12 months may give him enough time to make his cuts through attrition.

But at the Department of Public Works, a large agency being asked to make deeper cuts than any other agency, the extra 12 months may not help very much to achieve a 23.3 percent cut requested by Mr. Ecker.

The deep cuts at the public works agency are designed to offset cuts of far less than 12 percent in other agencies -- particularly public safety.

Asked about cutting her department's budget by 23.3 percent over the next 31 months, Jo Ann Davis, head of administrative services at public works, said, "I don't have a clue as to how we're going to get there. Our attrition has really been nothing."

But taken as a whole, the county work force may be shrinking at a rate that will correspond to Mr. Ecker's new 31-month deadline.

An analysis of the county budget by The Sun shows that about 296 positions -- at an average of about $45,000 per year in costs for salaries and benefits -- would have to be cut to achieve a 12 percent spending cut.

Last year, 103 people quit the county government -- or an average of 8.6 a month. That rate -- over 31 months -- comes out to about 267 positions.

Meanwhile, any good news in the 12-month extension in Mr. Ecker's planned cuts was tempered by some more immediate bad news.

Mr. Ecker told his staff last week that not as much tax money as expected is coming into the county's coffers. He now estimates a $3.7 million budget shortfall by June 30, 1996.

As a result, departments -- public works in particular -- will have to start making cuts this year.

But Mr. Ecker said he would not permit cuts in snow removal this winter. "That's a priority," he said.

Mr. Ecker said that cuts made now would count toward his overall goal of cutting 12 percent by 1998.

He repeated that he is demanding the drastic cuts because the growth rate for Howard County tax revenues has fallen, while demand for new services continues to rise. He intends to take the money cut from current spending levels and spend it on additional education and public safety services for the growing county.

Details of the budget cutting still will be formulated by teams of government workers, as Mr. Ecker originally proposed.

All vacant positions will be evaluated by a job bank. Mr. Ecker is asking employees to submit their own positions to the job bank if they think they could be more efficient performing other duties.

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