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County Executive Robert R. Neall imposed a hiring freeze and other spending limits on all government agencies yesterday in an effort to preserve Anne Arundel's projected $17 million budget surplus.

The move has been expected because Neall and his top aides have been discussing cost-cutting measures since the county executive was elected last month.

But the order surprised fire and police officials, who had assumed they were protected by Neall's campaign promise to "hold harmless" front-line public safety and education workers in the event the county needed to lay off employees to cope with a budget crisis.

In a speech to the Anne Arundel Trade Council, Neall announced the strictures as a way to protect county finances that have been buffeted by recession and the state budget deficit.

"You're hitting me cold with something," fire administrator Joseph "Mac" Connell said when asked how the freeze would affect his department.

"(Neall) hasn't said that to me directly and I haven't seen that in writing."

Police Chief George W. Wellham II was not available for comment yesterday, but an aide said the department was unaware of any orders to freeze hiring or spending.

"The chief and Mr. Neall will meet Thursday to kick off the budget and at that time we would hope to get further clarity as to how far-reaching this freeze will be," Capt. Thomas Shanahan said.

He said any further comment would be "inappropriate," other than to join Connell in pledging cooperation and compliance with Neall's order.

Neall said he is not presently considering layoffs but has not ruled them out.

The freeze should "come as no surprise" to any department heads, who previously had been asked to look for ways to cut 10 percent from their budgets, said David Almy, Neall's deputy chief of staff. But he repeated the pledge to protect front-line services.

"We have a hiring freeze, but with the caveat that Mr. Neall can approve (exceptions) personally. But the scrutiny will be much higher," Almy said.

"Cops on the beat will still be the last to go (as well as) firefighters holding hoses."

In his speech, Neall painted a gloomy picture of the local economy and county finances. He warned that spending controls are necessary this year to help the county survive a recession that could last "18 months to two years."

"Nobody is going to bail us out, not even that man in the red suit," Neall said, pointing to a mechanical Santa Claus waving in the ballroom of the Riva Holiday Inn.

With a $10 million decline in county revenues and the loss of $3 million in state aid, he said the county will have to find ways to trim its $617 million operating budget.

Neall said the county could expect to carry over a $17 million surplus into next year -- up from the $12 million budget officials estimated last month -- but warned that the cushion is necessary to protect Anne Arundel's credit rating. When fiscal 1991 ends June 30, the surplus will show a sharp drop from the almost $40 million left over from last year.

Protecting the diminished surplus will be key to saving Anne Arundel from the deficit conditions in Baltimore City and the state's other large counties, Neall said.

"If we fiddle away these next seven months," he said, "next year you'll be reading about Anne Arundel County."

In one of his few expressions of optimism, Neall offered the backhanded hope that "housing and construction are so low that they cannot create an additional drag on the economy by themselves."

Neall estimated that a hiring freeze over the next 19 months could save $2.5 million this fiscal year and $6 million in 1992.

Other budget-cutting orders include: * Freezing out-of-state travel.

* Requiring County Administrator Adrian Teel to approve any equipment purchases exceeding $500.

* Restricting hiring of consultants and building renovations.

* Expanding Budget Office review of other spending.

Neall also asked that similar spending limits be imposed on Anne Arundel Community College and the school and library systems, where department heads have control of their budgets.

"We're going to look at a hiring freeze on vacant positions; we're going to look at everything," said AACC public relations director Theone Relos.

But with a 600-person full-time work force and only six job openings, she added that the college is "probably not looking at a lot of money."

But spending cuts in the school system -- where a hiring freeze has been in place for three weeks -- will be more complicated, said Board of Education budget officer Jack White.

With turnover that could climb to "the hundreds" by June 30, he said school officials will have to juggle personnel to prevent cuts from hurting classroom instruction.

For example, he said that resource teachers -- who update instructional programs and materials and train other teachers -- could be reassigned as classroom positions open. Similarly, reading teachers -- who give one-on-one help to struggling students -- also could be moved to regular classes, White said.

But anticipating a debate on priorities, he said there are some cuts that school officials probably would avoid at all costs.

"A possible scare tactic would be to say, 'OK, you're not going to give us the money, then we're going to cut out athletics,' " White said. "But that's kind of playing dirty pool. We're not doing those kinds of things"

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