Even as the Baltimore County Council weighs an employee buyout plan that could chop millions from next year's budget, officials are leaving open the possibility of layoffs and furloughs.
Council members discussed the early retirement proposal at a meeting Tuesday at which administration officials told them it would save about $14 million each year. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed the buyouts last month.
The plan is intended to cut about 200 jobs from the county's workforce of 8,000. Depending on how many people take the offer, "we are not in a position of taking layoffs and furloughs off the table," Kamenetz's chief of staff, Don Mohler, said after the meeting.
Mohler said the administration can't predict future funding cuts from the state and federal levels, but added that if the county can attract 200 employees to the incentive program, it would be in a better position to maintain full employment for the workers who remain.
Council members are set to vote on the retirement legislation Monday.
Not everyone who wants to retire early will be able to. About 1,100 general government employees could qualify, but county officials must first determine that a position can be eliminated without cutting services. A number of employees, including police officers, firefighters, social workers and public health nurses, aren't eligible at all.
County administrative officer Fred Homan will approve applications.
John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, said after the meeting that several unions already have contracts protecting them from layoffs through 2014.
The retirement incentive package is "certainly a creative measure that we're in favor of," he said.
"What it does is shift current operating expenses to the pension system, and the pension system can only afford that because of great concessions public employees have made" in the past, he said.
Still, Ripley added that if the offers end up "only being available to a select, handpicked few by the county administration, I don't see whether that's going to be fair and benefit county employees."
Eligible employees will be able to apply between Oct. 31 and Dec. 30. Those who are accepted would stop working by the end of February.
Also Tuesday, unions representing public employees pressed for changes to a measure to change the way the county resolves labor disputes.
Last year, voters approved a referendum to give more than 2,500 "general" county employees the right to binding arbitration, a practice in which a third-party arbiter makes decisions in the case of a labor impasse. The county's police officers and firefighters have been able to use binding arbitration for nearly a decade.
Council members are set to vote Monday on legislation proposed by Kamenetz to authorize binding arbitration for general employees, but unions say the bill is too weak.
Kamenetz's proposal, which his administration says would authorize binding arbitration at a reasonable cost to taxpayers, would limit it for general workers to salary and pension issues. They would not be able to use it for terms and conditions of employment, as police officers and firefighters can.
"The current bill stops short of what the will of the people is," Ripley told the council.
Ripley submitted union-proposed amendments that would more closely align the legislation with what police and fire unions have. It would also grant the workers binding arbitration next July, rather than in 2014 as Kamenetz has proposed.