Counties Get Lessons In Less

Officials Learn To Cope With Coming Budget Cuts

August 14, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,

Ocean City -- The panel on terminations was appropriately somber and laced with references to death, luring public employees who increasingly have the dubious task of doling out pink slips to their own.

Among the PowerPoint tips shared Thursday by Harford County Human Resources Director Scott T. Gibson: Be honest! Acknowledge the hurt. Behave the way you would at a funeral.

It was one of several discussions around the theme of downsizing at this year's annual summer conference for the Maryland Association of Counties. Such talks were well-attended, as local governments prepare for their first major wave of cutbacks from the state.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said in an interview Thursday that some of the $470 million in reductions he's poised to make by Labor Day will come from aid to counties.

State officials already have approved $280 million in reductions from the current budget year as they contend with the national economic downturn.

Most local aid goes to public schools, but O'Malley has pledged not to cut education funding for kindergarten through 12th grade. That leaves vulnerable such programs as libraries, community colleges and local health departments.

"There are no cuts that, at this point, don't affect your core mission," O'Malley said. The Democratic governor said he also is talking to state employee unions about furloughs - mandatory days off without pay - to find "an equitable way to spread the pain."

Today, the governor plans to release some 2,500 suggestions from the public on how the state can tighten its belt. The 700 or so registered attendees at the MACo conference have ideas of their own, swapping stories throughout the four-day gathering that ends Saturday.

At "Doing More with Less," Timothy L. Firestine, chief administrative officer of Montgomery County, outlined how officials there tried to close the $1.2 billion gap that developed over the past three years.

Renegotiating employee contracts helped the most, he said. But smaller trims added up, too. Not mailing copies of property tax bills to people who pay through their mortgage companies will save about $43,000 per year, decreasing the number of printed budget books another $27,000.

But, he acknowledged, "You quickly run out of the easy options."

In Gibson's session, titled, "Reductions in Force, Involuntary Terminations and Furloughs: Managing Employee Behaviors in the Aftermath," the realities of cutting staff were laid bare.

Mostly in attendance were human resources directors from nearly every county.

Gibson warned his audience to be prepared to contend with the angry, distraught co-workers left behind. There are simple things you can do, he told them, such as removing the desks of laid off colleagues.

He compared the extra furniture to the closet of his deceased grandfather. Once his grandmother finally packed up his clothes, he said, "she could move on."

In the same way, he said, empty desks are "a painful reminder that your employees are going to have to walk by every single day."

Gibson urged possibly hiring crisis counselors to "facilitate the grieving process" and to acknowledge to employees that "we feel pain, too."

But, as he noted in a slide, it can't all be gloomy: "Layoffs should appear to be part of a general plan for a better tomorrow."

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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