Hiring freeze in Arundel

Police, fire service exempt

stoppage to continue through June 30

December 15, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN REPORTER

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, stepping up his cost-saving efforts, has imposed a temporary hiring freeze on most county departments and called on agency directors to set efficiency goals.

Leopold announced plans Wednesday for a hiring stoppage - except for police, fire service and other public safety personnel - that would last until at least June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

County officials confirmed that about 200 current positions will be held open, but they were unable to estimate the potential savings or which departments would be most affected. The county employs more than 4,000 workers.

Leopold, a Republican, said he had been contemplating the move for several weeks, part of a wider effort to "restore a foundation of trust on fiscal matters" - a cornerstone phrase of his recent campaign - and prepare for severe budget shortfalls starting next fiscal year.

"There [are] some looming fiscal challenges on the horizon which necessitate increased fiscal discipline," Leopold said. "I thought it was important to impose a hiring freeze to provide that fiscal discipline and find those efficiencies."

County Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, supported the hiring freeze.

"I think it is a prudent move, especially as we await a more updated picture of the financial situation of the county," Dillon said. "It is better to take this proactive move," he added, than do nothing and risk the potential of layoffs.

Also Wednesday, Leopold said, he outlined in a meeting with the Cabinet his desire to create performance benchmarks by which departments would be evaluated on a quarterly basis, starting in April. He said he had broached the subject with his senior staff in a memo.

He said his administration will set goals by which he and his staff can be judged.

The county executive has told department heads that they would need to prepare for spending cuts of between 5 percent to 10 percent for the next fiscal year.

"I am not asking the department heads to do what I have not done myself," he said.

Since taking office last week, Leopold has cut nearly $1 million from the current budget through administrative restructuring. He has also formed committees of community, political and business leaders to analyze efficiencies in county government, and their recommendations are due by February.

Although Anne Arundel officials recently forecast declining real estate tax revenues, Leopold emphasized that the county is in "generally good shape." He noted that the county has nearly $43 million in a rainy-day fund (inherited from Democrat Janet S. Owens' administration), a strong bond rating and an unemployment rate that is below the state average.

Still, the county faces billions of dollars of new expenses: growing commitments for retirees' health care; infrastructure upgrades to prepare for a major expansion at Fort Meade; the negotiation of 10 union contracts; and school construction and renovations.

In addition, Leopold wants to fund initiatives to restore waterways damaged by storm-water runoff, expand the stock of "affordable" housing and create a "311" phone line to improve constituent service.

"The time to plan for the difficult times is when times are good ... that is part of being responsible, fiscal leaders," Leopold said.

Glenard S. Middleton, executive director for Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that Leopold should complete a countywide budget assessment before imposing a hiring freeze. AFSCME represents 1,300 Anne Arundel employees.

Middleton said that no other county executive in the region has seen the need to take this step.

"We understand he is fiscally conservative," said Middleton, adding that he might meet with Leopold, a former state legislator, this month. "But he should not slap a freeze until he sees where things are."

Leopold noted that the private sector constantly seeks to find efficiencies to provide services at reduced costs. "Government needs to start doing the same thing," he said.

Leopold said he has also made overtures to county school officials to find savings, but he did not elaborate. About half of the $1.3 billion county budget goes to the school system.

"We all share the responsibilities of providing efficiencies," said Leopold, who spoke of having a "healthy tension" between him and the school board on fiscal matters.

School Board President Tricia Johnson said it is important for school officials to maintain a dialogue with the new administration. While acknowledging the financial challenges ahead, she noted that the school system is already running "a very, very lean operation."

Dillon said that communication between school and county officials will be critical as Anne Arundel faces challenging fiscal times.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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