Counties begin trimming jobs, freezing hires

January 16, 2008|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

Pia Jordan wore a red suit and a pleasant smile as she directed a small crew from Howard County's in-house cable TV studio.

But Jordan, an 18-year studio veteran, is suddenly looking for a new job. She and five other full-time staffers learned last week that they will be laid off by July.

"I don't think it has hit me yet," said Jordan, who was on assignment yesterday at county election headquarters. She described herself as being "in mourning."

Jordan is among the recent casualties of local governments, which have been bracing against the slumping real-estate market, wilting state aid and shrinking revenue from income taxes by imposing hiring freezes and other personnel cuts.

Baltimore City and Charles County, followed in the past two weeks by Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, have announced they will not fill job vacancies -- 1,000 openings in Montgomery alone.

Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson said last week that any job hire must be submitted to him for approval in an effort to cut costs. St. Mary's County's school system has instituted a hiring freeze, and retirement incentives have been offered for selected teachers and staff in Calvert County.

Maryland's 24 jurisdictions are holding their collective breath as Gov. Martin O'Malley unveils the state budget today. They took an estimated quarter-billion-dollar hit during the General Assembly's special session late last year.

$200 million trim

O'Malley needs to trim $200 million from the fiscal 2009 spending plan, and spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday that while the budget will provide "historic funding" for education and school construction, the counties will see "some reductions."

The big question is how heavy a burden will be placed on the local governments, which are losing as much as 30 percent in revenue from real-estate transactions compared with a year ago.

"My suspicion is over the next several weeks, we will see a fair number of counties doing this sort of thing, whether it's a hiring freeze or retirement incentives," said Michael Sanderson, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties. "We've got counties who have suddenly found a hole in their budget."

Montgomery, which has 10,000 employees, announced its hiring freeze after its budget shortfall jumped in November by nearly $100 million, to $401 million, because of projected revenue declines in recordation and transfer taxes and income taxes. The freeze does not include public safety workers, bus drivers and other "essential" positions.

Charles and Anne Arundel counties also exempted emergency personnel in their hiring freezes.

"We are already carrying a fairly heavy burden," said Patrick Lacefield, a Montgomery County spokesman. "We are facing a huge budget shortfall, and we're going to make some very difficult choices. What Annapolis does makes that easier or harder."

Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties so far have no plans for a hiring freeze.

St. Mary's government hasn't announced a formal freeze, either, but it has gone without adding to its 700-person staff in the past year with the exception of police and fire personnel, county spokeswoman Karen Everett said.

"We are leanly staffed," she said.

General concerns

Baltimore City imposed a hiring freeze on nonessential personnel late last year, not so much in anticipation of state cuts but rather because of general concerns about the budget, said City Hall spokesman Sterling Clifford.

"It is a general anticipation of a different kind of financial year than we've had the last couple of years," Clifford said. "What we know for certain is that we will not have the kind of surplus we've had in the past years."

During the special session, legislators voted to raise a number of taxes to help close a structural deficit of as much as $1.7 billion. They also voted to request that O'Malley cut $550 million from projected state spending. Legislators specified $350 million in state cuts, leaving the rest to O'Malley's discretion.

It appears, Sanderson has said, that because of the special session local jurisdictions will lose about $250 million next year, including $150 million in a slowdown in the rate of increases to school funding.

O'Malley has not offered specifics on where the additional $200 million in cuts would come from. Some lawmakers said the governor might need to trim even more.

Result of repeal

If state lawmakers repeal the expansion of the sales tax on computer services, county officials across the state fear that Annapolis will again look to the local governments to meet that shortfall. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has said local cuts would be the likely outcome of a repeal of that tax.

Such uncertainty fueled Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold's decision to freeze 115 positions, which is expected to save $4 million over six months -- the same duration as his hiring freeze one year ago.

Even Howard County, which is projecting a $13.7 million surplus this year, is bracing.

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