Open-meetings reform bill hits resistance

To balance its budget and avoid layoffs without a tax increase, Anne Arundel County government should consider eliminating 133 vacant positions, according to a recent consultant's report.

The report by former Chief Administrative Officer John M. Brusnighan states that if the county wants to give its employees cost-of-living raises without increasing taxes, eliminating vacant positions is the "only viable alternative." The recommended cut would save $6 million, according to the report.

In what may be the first indication that County Executive Janet S. Owens could back away from her push for tax increases, Brusnighan wrote that she is unlikely to find support for those plans.

"The current sentiment by the citizen base [is] that government is not efficiently run and therefore they are unwilling to support tax increases of almost any nature," Brusnighan wrote.

After retiring in September, Brusnighan was hired to assess whether the county should offer all 14,000 county and schools employees an early-retirement incentive program - which he did not support - but his Feb. 28 report expanded in scope to explore other possible budget solutions.

County officials say they are facing a $15 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year, a number that keeps growing as the county reaches pay-raise agreements with its employee unions.

The next fiscal year begins July 1, and Brusnighan recommended the county take immediate action.

"Since [eliminating vacant positions] appears to be the default option, a decision should be made immediately not to fill vacant positions," he wrote. " ... If this decision is deferred until budget finalizations, layoffs may not be avoided."

Through a spokeswoman, Owens said she is reviewing the report.

Council Vice Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said it's up to Owens to decide what she wants to do with the report.

"At this point," he said, "I think it's probably premature to say anything's off the table."

Personnel costs account for nearly three-quarters of the county's annual operating budget.

Brusnighan calls for the county to explore eliminating 70 percent of all vacant positions that are not public safety jobs.

The resulting $6 million savings would be enough to fund an average 2.5 percent cost-of-living raise for all county employees - excluding schools, library and community college employees.

Those sections of government would need to make similar cuts to free up money for their employees, he wrote.

Owens, a Millersville Democrat, has said she will seek an income tax increase and a new cellular phone tax to help raise revenue for next year, but she hasn't found much support from other elected officials.

Brusnighan said eliminating the vacancies would hurt government services but will help meet short-term goals. He also cautioned the county to take all steps necessary to avoid the negative publicity created last year when Owens laid off 16 police officers.

"To avoid the wave of criticism that was heard last year, the message needs to emphasize that the elimination of vacant positions is necessary to build enough money to provide cost-of-living increases for existing employees," he wrote.

Also in the report, Brusnighan suggests the county explore a cheaper pension plan for future employees. He wrote that the county plans are "expensive compared to many other public pension plans."