Robey talks of cutbacks in spending

Annual address reveals few specifics of belt tightening

`There will be ... sacrifices'

Officials may use `Rainy Day Fund' to offset shortfall

January 17, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Issuing warnings about spending cuts and carrying a real umbrella for economic "rainy days," Howard County Executive James N. Robey prepared the county's business community yesterday for what promises to be his most difficult year in office.

Robey's annual State of the County speech before a sold-out Chamber of Commerce lunch at a Columbia hotel revealed few specifics about his plans for dealing with a projected $18 million budget shortfall - other than eliminating $7.3 million in capital budget spending for next year.

The former police chief raced back from Gov. Parris N. Glendening's address in Annapolis at 150 mph on a demonstration flight of a new Bell helicopter for the Columbia speech, telling the crowd that the governor's take on state affairs was not very different from his.

He talked first about the effect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and the awe he felt viewing the destruction in New York.

At one point, Robey, recalling the 1991 recession, used former County Executive Charles I. "Chuck" Ecker's words from the same chamber speech 11 years ago to characterize the situation.

Robey said, "There will be temporary sacrifices in both the current year and next year to protect and reinforce the permanent gains we have made." Other than calling those sacrifices "sensible, sensitive and as equitable as possible," he gave no details.

The combination of a recession with an election year can only add political and economic pressure, and as if to underscore that, the County Council's two Republicans announced yesterday they will oppose a suggested $1,200-a-year pay raise for the next County Council as a symbolic move.

That suggestion, as the council considers recommended pay increases for the next County Council and county executive, puts the Democrats on the spot because they are a majority on the five-member council. Robey is a Democrat.

The bill, scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday night, would increase council pay $1,200 to $35,000 a year, and the executive's pay to $125,000. Both rates would increase more after 2003, based on the Consumer Price Index.

"During times like these, we all need to be tightening our belts," Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said in a news release he and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman issued.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, called it "clearly a political move," and said they could refund their raises if they wish.

Michael T. Galeone, chairman of the chamber's board of directors, added another political element at the luncheon by nearly endorsing Robey for re-election from the podium and inviting the audience to Robey's $100-a-ticket fund-raiser tonight in the Gateway office park.

Kittleman said the comments made it seem as if the chamber was endorsing Robey. "That really bothers me," he said.

In his speech, Robey recalled that he was police chief during the last recession, and "it was tough, but I did what was necessary and will do it again as county executive."

The umbrella prop was to symbolize something Ecker did not have a decade ago - the county's $31.8 million "Rainy Day Fund," which Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, has said might be needed to close the funding gap by June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

In the meantime, Robey stressed the improvements he has made during the three years when revenues were flush, from 670 new education workers and 66 more public safety employees, to new schools, senior centers and a renovated central library.

Next year, he said, there would be no surplus "pay-as-you-go" cash in the county's capital budget, and projects such as road resurfacing, sidewalks and intersection improvements would be put on hold.

He warned about being "too quick to acquire a greater percentage of debt or to place additional tax burdens on our residents." The county's Spending Affordability Committee is considering recommending a higher level of borrowing through bond sales, which would not increase that percentage compared to revenues.

Education remains his priority, Robey said, because the county's quality of life and its highly qualified and educated populace is its greatest asset.

The county's unemployment rate remains at 3.1 percent, below the state's 5.3 percent level, Robey said, and forecasts are for a quick recovery.

Meanwhile, he said the county would muddle through.

"The economic pendulum will continue to swing, and the best we can do is hold on tight, and lean the right way to counterbalance the impact."

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