County staffer's on-off career Revenue drop shuffles workers' assignments

April 08, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Shawn Sprole is a living example of Baltimore County government's recessionary roller-coaster ride through the 1990s.

In six years at the Department of Recreation and Parks, he has moved up, sideways, down and then out. Laid off in 1993, he came back seven months later to a lower-paying maintenance job. Now he has been thrust on an acting basis into a management job.

But the 29-year-old, college-educated county employee still is technically a maintenance worker earning $8.85 an hour -- rather than the $27,312 to $34,693 annual salary that senior community supervisors receive.

"My secretary makes more money than I do," the still-cheerful Mr. Sprole said. "She's leaving, and I'm thinking of hiring myself because I'd get a raise."

While education and public safety get priority for scarce county dollars, other departments such as Recreation and Parks, Public Works and even Health are shrinking to make up the difference. With revenues flat and county politicians afraid of raising taxes, those agencies still are losing people and money.

Since 1991, for example, the county's Public Works Department has shrunk 25 percent, a loss of 312 people, while smaller Recreation and Parks has lost 142 employees -- a 38 percent drop, according to county personnel figures.

Public Works lost 100 senior people to early retirement in February, including one-third of the bureaus of highways and engineering. In addition, Public Works Director Charles R. "Bob" Olsen was told by the Ruppersberger administration to submit a budget request $2 million lower than this year's spending. "You lose some efficiency," Mr. Olsen said.

His experience is far from unique. The Health Department lost 23 people, Permits and Development Management lost 29, and recreation lost 29, which represents about 14 percent of its work force. Each department had to trim budget requests by $1 million or more below current levels.

Even the Department of Aging, to save money, is seeking private vendors to run its adult day care program for elderly people with severe dementia -- in a county with a fast-growing population of senior citizens.

After February's exodus, Mr. Sprole became one of 10 people promoted to acting management jobs covering two or three neighborhoods. He supervises activities at three Dundalk sites -- the Inverness Center alternative school on Lynch Road, where he is based, and at Watersedge and Turners Station. Others have taken on the duties of two or even three departed workers.

Mr. Sprole said he did part-time work during his layoff but kept in touch with his department and was waiting for a chance to return when the maintenance job became available. He said the position was an opportunity to prepare him for a better job.

"They're going to have to fill some of the [vacated] positions," said Mr. Sprole, who lives rent-free with his wife and infant daughter at Dark Head Park off Middle River, where they serve as caretakers. "I'm much more hopeful than I've been in the last seven years."

County Recreation Director John F. Weber III agreed that some vacant jobs must be filled. And workers who have "stepped up" to take on more duties without more pay will be in the running for them, he said.

But the world of government work in which Mr. Weber's own career began in the Dundalk of 1966 will never be the same.

"We were very oriented to provide public service. Revenue wasn't important," said Mr. Weber, who later worked in Harford County and then in Los Angeles before returning last year. "Taxpayers' dollars covered basic costs. That's no longer there."

Career paths are different, too. Acknowledging that the elimination of seven senior management jobs has also eliminated most promotional paths, he said ambitious people will just have to move from one county department to another if they want to advance.

Whatever the changes, the public hasn't lost out, he said. It may take him longer to return phone calls, but the programs haven't been sacrificed, he said.

"I think that quality of programs is just as good, maybe even better," he said.

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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