Howard, other counties hold 'Stop the Shift' campaign events

County Executive Ken Ulman stood this week for a news conference, threatening to reduce library hours, cut police positions and cancel local Fourth of July fireworks if the state decides to shift the cost of teacher pensions to local governments.

Ulman's warnings, repeated by about a dozen county agency heads outside the Harper's Choice Village Center on Thursday, came amid a series of similar events held by local officials throughout the state. All warned that the cost-sharing plan proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley would lead to painful decisions far beyond their school systems.

"These are real reductions affecting the quality of life," said Ulman, as he stood with police Chief William J. McMahon, County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, schools Superintendent Sydney Cousin and others. The county would stand to pay $17.2 million, and that figure is expected to increase over time.

Across Maryland, at least nine events were held Tuesday, as well as one Monday, with Harford County Executive David Craig in Bel Air. Nine Eastern Shore counties scheduled similar events Friday, said Michael Sanderson, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

He said the events are part of a statewide strategy that local officials hope will put pressure on the General Assembly to back away from the plan, which could save the state $239 million next year. O'Malley's plan would pool pension costs with Social Security employer contributions now paid by the counties and split them equally.

"This is really a debate over county budgets," Sanderson said. "These are all folks who have a stake in this, too," he added, describing the labor organizations that have joined with the counties out of concern about job losses.

But proponents of the shift see the move as necessary to close the state's roughly $1 billion budget shortfall. Maryland has paid $955 million a year to cover the full cost of teacher pensions. If the General Assembly does not approve the measure, money will have to be found in either added revenues or additional spending cuts.

At the Howard event, Ulman said, "We're sharing these tough economic times," but that under the proposal, the counties would be burdened by a state problem. The county has seen a $41.3 million reduction in state funds over the past five years.

Cousin said the $16.2 million expense to Howard schools would cost the same as 225 teaching positions, or the costs of transportation for 32,000 students.

And worse, he said, the costs "will grow over time … and there's no end to it."

Ulman said after the event that is important to explain how bad the cuts would be.

"You have numbers, but it's all numbers unless you put a face on it," he said. "Those are real impacts that make a key difference."

O'Malley has also proposed raising income taxes for the top 20 percent of state earners in a way that would also provide revenue for county governments, as well as additional tax measures that would provide money to the counties.

But county officials said that revenue wouldn't be enough to cover the burden of the state's plan, particularly in coming years. The Maryland Association of Counties estimated the second-year cost to the counties at $330 million.

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