Economic uncertainty greets new county executives Newcomers find their choices limited

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A rookie platoon of county executives called up for duty four weeks ago by an irate electorate at war with rising taxes, unregulated growth and unresponsive government takes up arms tomorrow.

Four men and one woman will march into the top government posts for the first time in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties, one of the largest turnovers in local leadership in the state since the post of county executive was created in 1956.

But even before the three Republicans and two Democrats are swornin, they've had an opportunity to practice swearing -- over looming budget problems caused by the sagging regional economy.

In nearly every jurisdiction, the likelihood of budget cuts, hiring freezes and perhaps even layoffs to offset shortfalls in tax revenue has cast a pall over a dramatic change in metropolitan government leadership.

"We must be focused on budgets," said Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel'sexecutive-elect, whose inaugural ceremony is today, with the others' set for tomorrow. "Other than that and being new, we're all as different as different can be."

Mr. Neall, a Republican, will be joined by fellow GOP members Roger B. Hayden in Baltimore County and Charles I. Ecker in Howard County. Democrats elected as county executives for the first time are Harford County's Eileen M. Rehrmann and Neal Potter in suburban Washington's Montgomery County.

Only in Prince George's County, where Democrat Parris N. Glendening was handily re-elected on Nov. 6, is there a familiar face in the executive's office.

In the Baltimore region, the changeover represents a swing toward fiscal conservatism and Republicans in a state still firmly controlled by Democrats. Even in Harford County, Mrs. Rehrmann will be joined by a County Council controlled by the GOP.

Mr. Hayden, Mr. Ecker and Mr. Neall have played down the significance of partisan politics but acknowledge the potential for political conflict. The three men "don't have monogrammed R's on their lapels," said Mr. Neall.

"The two mandates we were given from the voters were to control spending and open up the government," said Mr. Hayden, Baltimore County's first elected Republican executive since Spiro T. Agnew in 1962. "I don't foresee any problems."

The Republican influence is already having an impact in Baltimore County, where voters also selected three Republicans for the seven-member County Council. With the help of 7th District Democrat Donald Mason, council members are expected to name 4th District Republican Douglas Riley as their chairman in January.

Neither Mr. Hayden nor Mr. Ecker has talked with the most powerful Democrat in the state, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, since Election Day. The newcomers defeated two of Mr. Schaefer's friends, Dennis F. Rasmussen and Elizabeth Bobo -- a strike against them from the start.

Indeed, Mr. Schaefer is said to be pondering how he will treat the newcomers, particularly the Republicans. Mr. Glendening and Mrs. Rehrmann are established Schaefer allies, and support for them is assured.

Mr. Neall, on the other hand, was unhappy to see Mr. Schaefer vigorously campaign for his Democratic opponent, Theodore J. Sophocleus, after the Republican spent a year as the Schaefer administration's first drug czar.

But the two politicians claim to have patched things up since the election.

As evidence of the reconciliation, an ebullient Mr. Schaefer called Mr. Neall "very competent," a "very good man . . . a professional" and a "tower of strength" during a news conference last Tuesday.

"I think they [the Republican executives] will find the governor very sober, watching for signals from them how they expect to relate to state government and this administration," said Mark L. Wasserman, Mr. Schaefer's chief administrative aide. "Obviously, we start with some blank slates in some cases."

Such relations are vital since counties depend on state government to help pay for such necessities as highways and new schools. While the governor needs votes from state legislators in those counties, he is not so dependent on the county executives.

"The new kids on the block need to realize that it's a heckuva lot more important for the execs to know the governor than for the governor to know the execs," said O. James Lighthizer, the outgoing Anne Arundel executive. "Local government isn't the place for partisan feelings."

The Republicans should expect difficulty in getting bills through the Democratic-controlled state legislature and in winning the governor's support for state funds, warned Mr. Rasmussen, the outgoing Baltimore County executive and a 16-year General Assembly veteran.

"What's important is accessibility, being able to discuss issues with the governor and personally communicate what the concerns are," Mr. Rasmussen said.

Last week, the three Republican county executives met for the first time, not at a GOP event but at a fund-raiser for Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The Democratic mayor seemed ready to return the bipartisan good will, promising to attend inaugural festivities in all four Baltimore suburban counties.

"It's in all of our interests to work together and to have good working relationships," said Mr. Schmoke, who gave Mr. Neall, Mr. Hayden and Mr. Ecker a warm introduction at the $500-a-ticket event.

"We face a lot of the same problems, we have a lot of the same fiscal issues to deal with."

The executives-elect have pledged to continue working together through the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments, a planning agency that deals with regional issues, and in providing grants to city-based cultural institutions such as the Walters Art Gallery, the Baltimore Zoo and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

They also plan to continue monthly meetings of the "Big Seven," the long-standing work group formed by the six county executives, the mayor and their staffs.

"We have to look at ourselves not as one separate island, but as part of a whole area with different parts that depend on each other," said Mr. Ecker.

Yet how much time they can spend in long-range planning and with multijurisdictional issues will likely be tempered by more immediate financial concerns at home. They arrive midway through the budget cycle with less-than-expected revenue from income, sales and property transfer taxes and higher-than-expected costs for such things as interest payments and fuel.

At the moment, one of the most critical situations is in Howard County, where Mr. Ecker faces a potential $17 million budget deficit. He has already warned that he must make some gloomy choices if he is to balance the county's books.

"We're either going to have to raise taxes or cut services," Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Neall has warned Anne Arundel officials that he does not intend to take another $10 million from the county's built-in budget surplus over the next seven months to make up for declining tax revenues, as the Lighthizer administration had planned.

The surplus "is dangerously low now," Mr. Neall cautioned. "One of my first edicts is that we're going to absorb" the $10 million shortfall.

Mrs. Rehrmann said last week that she is not ready to announce her budget plans but wants to end the year with a surplus, rather than break even as projected. "We're looking at possible cuts right now," she said.

And in Baltimore County, while no shortfall is anticipated in this year's budget, department heads have been told to reduce spending by 7 percent in the budgets they submit for next year.

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