Arundel executive's budget would avoid county layoffs

But future financial woes could result in staff cuts

April 27, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

After months of unprecedented public discussion about the dire financial situation of Anne Arundel County, Executive Janet S. Owens has opted to prepare a proposed budget that would avoid the layoff of any county employees, her spokeswoman said last week.

But despite Owens' plan for no layoffs in the proposal she will release Thursday, she already has drafted legislation that would give her greater flexibility in cutting staff if the county's financial situation gets worse.

"She is preparing for various scenarios," said spokeswoman Jody Hedeman Couser.

The layoff legislation has been put on hold for now, but could be resurrected if the state hits the county with additional "massive" budget cuts, said Chief Administrative Officer John Brusnighan.

Owens, a Democrat, already is expecting the state will provide approximately $10 million less than last year toward her operating budget of nearly $900 million. She has taken that into account in preparing her budget.

But the county's budget squeeze could get worse if Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoes $135 million in new state taxes approved by the General Assembly.

Anne Arundel officials have a general rule about the impact of state decisions on their county: Any time the state makes cuts from its budget, 10 percent comes from Anne Arundel. If Ehrlich vetoes the tax plan and makes cuts instead, $13.5 million more could be cut from Anne Arundel's state aid. Layoffs would be back on the table again.

"The executive's telling us she probably can't absorb any more cuts," said County Council Vice Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Republican. The council must review and approve the county administration's budget plan for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The administration already has said its proposed budget likely will include no county income tax increase, but rather a property tax increase of a few tenths of a cent per $100 of taxable assessed property value. Each tenth of a cent increase would result in a $2.50 tax increase for the owner of a home with a $250,000 taxable value.

Officials also have said they will not grant raises to county employees next year and that many unfilled positions will be eliminated.

The layoff legislation would have prevented nonunion employees whose positions were eliminated from "bumping" other nonunion employees with less seniority. Brusnighan said that the last time the county had layoffs, about 10 years ago, the bumping process created confusion, as employees in eliminated positions were able to bump employees from other departments.

Including Circuit Court employees, the county has about 4,100 positions on its payroll, officials said.

The layoff legislation likely would affect fewer than 700 of them, county officials said. The process for layoffs involving union employees is dictated by their contracts.

It is unclear, Brusnighan said, whether union employees whose contracts expire on July 1, before a new contract is reached, would then be affected by the layoffs bill. Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican, said Owens requested to have the legislation introduced last week, but they met and decided to hold onto it - for now, at least.

"We can make a budget without any layoffs," Vitale said. "Why set off all those red flags if it's not necessary?"

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