Owens says hiring freeze under study

Savings would create leeway to raise pay of teachers, others

`A very limited budget'

County leader to talk with personnel officer before completing plan

February 23, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Despite a robust economy, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens is considering whether to institute a hiring freeze.

She said yesterday that she may prohibit the hiring of new county employees in the fiscal year starting July 1 to pay for raises for teachers and other union workers without raising taxes.

That compromise aims to prevent a collision between competing promises Owens made on the campaign trail when she described herself as a fiscal conservative who would fight for the county's unionized workers.

"I think this is going to be a tough budget," said Owens, who is negotiating for a spending plan for the next fiscal year. She will introduce the proposed budget to the County Council by May 1.

Owens said that county voters put their government in a bind in 1992 when they approved a ceiling on county taxes while at the same time they continued to demand excellent education and other county services.

"The economy is doing pretty well, but the tax cap is restricting us. I've been surprised by all the alleged promises for spending that the last administration made for which we do not have money budgeted."

Carlesa Finney, president of the county's Board of Education, said the county executive finds herself in a difficult position as she drafts her first budget and tries to keep pledges to improve education because of voters' conflicting desires.

"The problem is our county residents want the best education in the world, but they don't want to pay for it," Finney said.

On Friday, county financial officer John Hammond informed Owens that county tax revenues are expected to grow about 1.8 percent next year because of increases of property values and new construction.

This will mean an additional $25 million to $30 million for the operating budget that covers all county agencies -- a relatively small increase for a county government that had a $700 million operating budget this fiscal year.

Owens said she is instructing most department heads to request funding that is equal to the amount in this year's budget.

The county executive said she is committed to giving teachers a 3 percent pay raise, and expects to grant other unionized county employees a similar increase. Teachers and blue-collar county workers who endorsed Owens' long-shot candidacy this fall applaud that proposal.

Owens said she also wants to increase the county's spending for computer equipment next year, although she declined to give an exact figure. Such an increase would help improve the county government's outdated computer systems, she said.

Owens also said she is committed to hiring someone to tape and help broadcast County Council meetings. Anne Arundel is one of only a few municipalities in Maryland that has not joined the C-Span age.

On Wednesday, the Board of Education, a branch of county government that does not answer directly to Owens, approved a budget request 12 percent bigger than this year's, a $56 million increase over the current budget.

"That's too high and I think they know that," Owens said yesterday. "But I do want to do my very best to meet the educational needs of the county."

Susie Jablinske, director of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said that the large number of teachers who supported Owens' candidacy will not feel betrayed if the budget she proposes May 1 has only a modest increase in education spending.

"We all know that it would be virtually impossible with the county's tax cap to fully fund all of the things that the school system needs," Jablinske said.

Pam Beidle, County Council vice chairwoman, said council members have told school board members that the county cannot afford the 12 percent increase.

"The teachers' raises and the raises for other county employees are very important, because morale has been very low," said Beidle, a Democrat from the 1st District. "But clearly we are working within a very limited budget."

Owens said that there is a 60 percent chance that she will ask for a freeze on the hiring of noneducation employees for the fiscal year. She said that she will discuss the matter with the county's personnel officer before making a decision.

Scott Harmon, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 582, said workers would be happy to receive a 3 percent pay raise. He added, however, that a hiring freeze could hurt county services in the long run.

"A hiring freeze could affect services for county residents in the future," Harmon said. "There are some areas where we need to hire county employees to keep up our services. We will work with the administration to prevent any problems to the citizens."

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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