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Cost-cutting measures more drastic than the recently mandated hiring freeze may be needed to reduce the county's projected $2.5 million deficit, the County Commissioners say.

That figure is expected to increase as much as $752,000 with the governor's Thursday announcement cutting state aid to the counties and Baltimore City. (Please see article at right.) However, the commissioners say they are awaiting an updated report from County Budget Director Steven D. Powell on the state's income tax revenue outlook before taking further action.

Powell said he will brief the commissioners on the county's financial status by the end of the month, after revenue estimators from across the state convene to review the latest projections. He will make recommendations on other cost-cutting measures, if any are necessary, he said.

The county's money problems mirror those of the state and many Maryland counties showing deficits because of the slumping economy.

But Carroll "will not end in a deficit situation" that could jeopardize its high bond rating, Powell said firmly. A high rating reflects credit worthiness and allows the county to borrow money at lower interest rates.

On Nov. 27, the previous Board of Commissioners imposed a 60-day hiring freeze, which is likely to be extended, asked all county agencies to scale back expenditures and recommended that energy conservation measures be enforced to combat the deficit.

Newly elected Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy Jr. said he believed the measures that were implemented would not save $2 million.

"They don't constitute draconian measures," he said. "They'll allow you to stay where you are, but that's not a good place to be when you're $2.5 million in arrears."

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said the board might have to impose restrictions on county departments. Current measures are only "a kickoff to make departments look at their own budgets."

The board's need to impose further money-saving measures depends partly on cooperation from outside agencies that receive county money, such as the Board of Education and health organizations, she said. County government can't impose controls on their spending.

"This is serious business, not fun and games," she said. "It doesn't matter how large or small their budgets are. There should be conservation measures taken."

If auxiliary agencies don't heed warnings, "it should be reflected in budgets they get the following year," she said.

Several county departments are feeling effects of the hiring freeze, which includes new positions and vacancies. The Department of Human Resources says at least 15 positions now requested, ranging from clerical to laborer to professional, will go unfilled.

Department of Public Works Director John T. "Jack" Sterling Jr. said he has about five vacancies in roads operations.

"That's going to be a problem," he said.

The Department of Natural Resource Protection can't hire an education specialist budgeted for this year to inform Carroll residents about recycling and other waste-management programs.

"Environmental programs require a lot of education," said DNRP Director James E. Slater. "We're doing a lot. It's becoming increasingly evident people don't know everything we're doing."

The department also will go without a water resource specialist, a position left vacant by a promotion, and an environmental review specialist, who would analyze subdivision plans.

A vacant secretarial position has caused some havoc in the Department of Planning.

"If you count our secretaries compared to staff, you'll see we're hitting on about three cylinders," Director Edmund R. "Ned" Cueman told the commissioners.

The opening of the Bear Branch Nature Center at Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center could be delayed because the Department of Recreation and Parks can't hire a naturalist, said Director John Little.

Department directors can appeal for exemption from the hiring freeze. At least three appeals have been submitted, but Gouge said she doesn't expect any waivers to be granted until the commissioners hear Powell's report.

Meanwhile, the directors are looking for ways to save money, but most say they are operating on already tight budgets.

For example, Sterling said he has identified about $500,000 he would consider sparing because several bids for road projects came in under estimates. But in a normal year, that excess money would be applied to projects where bids exceeded projections, he said.

The Department of Aging has been hit with a "double whammy," said Director Jolene Sullivan, because state and federal contributions also have been reduced. She said she is reluctant to cut areas such as transportation and nutrition, but would re-evaluate smaller expenses, such as staff travel.

Powell said he is evaluating a change to four 10-hour work days for county employees as a possible conservation measure.

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