Think before you speak applies in exec's office

Comment

December 13, 1998|By BRIAN SULLAM

LESS THAN 24 hours after taking the oath of office to become Anne Arundel County's executive, Janet S. Owens learned her first lesson about running government: Surprises, most of them bad, come with the job.

Before she had a chance to settle into her new office in the Arundel Center, the U.S. Supreme Court ruined her day. The court refused to hear an 8-year-old case involving how the county calculates overtime for paramedics.

The court's decision means that the county government owes the paramedics back pay and interest totaling almost $4 million.

Ms. Owens' response was understandably tinged with frustration: "On my first day in office, I didn't need a $4 million bill."

By the end of her first term, Ms. Owens will know only too well that on any given day the chances are greater that county government will receive bills stamped "payment due immediately" rather than sizable cash refunds.

Unfortunately, other unpleasant surprises are lurking in Ms. Owens' future.

Some she might be able to anticipate. For instance, electrical deregulation is around the corner, and BGE, the utility company, is the county's largest taxpayer. Lower utility tax collections are one possible impact of deregulation.

Catastrophic surprises

Other unpredictable and catastrophic surprises could happen, just as they have elsewhere. Sparks Elementary School, for example, burned down in Baltimore County on a Sunday night three years ago. Not only did Baltimore County have to find temporary quarters for the students, it discovered the old site was unusable and had to build an entirely new school.

More than 15 years ago, on a hot day, an elevated portion of Russell Street buckled in Baltimore, closing a major access road. All of sudden, a city strapped for money had a multimillion public works project for which no one had budgeted.

Ms. Owens will also learn that nothing is as simple as it first appears.

Take her promise in her inaugural address to abolish pensions for the county executive and county council.

It is not clear that this council can eliminate pensions for itself and the current executive.

The Maryland Constitution may deter her plan. Article III, Section 35 reads "nor may the salary or compensation of a public officer be increased or diminished during his term of office."

Pension quandary

It would appear that if the council decides to eliminate pensions for itself and the executive, the impact will be on officials elected four years from now.

There are other roadblocks for the pension rollback. The county has what is known as a "tax qualified" pension plan for its employees. This designation means that the county's pension contributions on behalf of its employees are not taxable.

Under the tax code, employer contributions for pensions and other benefits that are offered to one class of employees and not another are taxable.

Clearly, if the council decided that all department heads will not receive pensions, they would create problems for the county employees' pension plan.

The IRS rules are unclear about what happens when elected officials voluntarily remove themselves from qualified plans.

By withdrawing from the public employees' pension plan, would elected officials be running the risk of making the contributions taxable for other county employees?

If so, the better policy decision might be to keep the elected officials in the plan rather than increase the tax burden on county employees.

As long as there isn't legal certainty on some of these issues, Ms. Owens would have been better off to have explored the ramifications of this proposal before introducing it as a public pledge.

Gary's impact fee

Her predecessor, John G. Gary, had a similar early misstep.

Within four days of taking office in 1994, Mr. Gary announced that he wanted to transfer impact fees from one part of the county to another and would use the fees to begin construction of a new high school in the western part of the county.

As it turned out, Mr. Gary did not have the flexibility he thought; the west county high school remains unbuilt.

If Ms. Owens hasn't discovered it already, political capital is a precious commodity. It should not be squandered.

Don't ask, don't tell

Rushing policy initiatives without adequate research and assessment of the consequences can be devastating in the early stages of an administration.

Just recall President Clinton's attempt to open the military to homosexuals. Instead of putting an issue to rest as he intended, he opened a can of worms that disrupted his first year in office.

Ms. Owens shouldn't fall into the same trap.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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