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Neall: Preparing for Austerity


Robert R. Neall, the Republican who succeeds Democrat O. James Lighthizer as Anne Arundel County executive tomorrow, is wasting no time preparing one of the state's wealthiest subdivisions for tough fiscal times. In budget briefings over the past few weeks, he has asked county departments to slice 10 to 15 percent from their budgets. At this point, the cuts are merely theoretical, an exercise in learning to live with less.

At a time of constrained revenues, the new executive is reordering priorities toward service and away from bureaucracy. weed out costly inefficiencies and duplication, his transition team is reviewing each department's purpose, staffing, funding and productivity levels. Several have been targeted for reined-in spending.

That Mr. Neall is tackling Anne Arundel's relatively mild fiscal problems early and aggressively is good news. Unlike neighboring Prince George's and Montgomery counties, Anne Arundel isn't yet facing deficit projections. Partly because of good management under Mr. Lighthizer, partly because its real estate slowdown hasn't been as severe as that experienced elsewhere, Arundel's revenues are expected to come in flat this year. Downsizing government now greatly reduces the likelihood Draconian measures down the road.

Mr. Neall is fortunate. With revenue levels equal to those of lasyear, Anne Arundel may only need to resort to freezing positions and delaying capital expenditures to escape a deficit during the last half of the fiscal year.

Ironically, Anne Arundel's relatively comfortable position in relation to its neighbors may prove Mr. Neall's biggest immediate problem. He faces 11 separate labor negotiations with county employees early next year. In a county where such talks are routinely adversarial, trying to convince labor leaders to take less because times have changed won't be easy.

There may be more rough sledding with the new county council. The general election yielded a politically diverse legislative body acutely aware of the rubber stamp reputation of Anne Arundel's previous council.

Mr. Neall comes to the office of county executive with impeccable credentials and a good game plan. Already, he is turning his "man for tough times" campaign talk into action. Union leaders should resist the temptation to approach upcoming talks as though nothing has changed. The leadership in county government is clearly girding for the squeeze ahead. Unions must prepare as well, devising fair, but reasonable bargaining strategies. Both sides can take comfort in preparations that will keep county workers on the job.

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