Layoff talk spreads a cloud Anxiety takes root amid the Howard crunch.


A story yesterday on possible layoffs in Howard County incorrectly quoted Councilman Charles C. Feaga. He said he would support a tax increase of 10 to 14 cents. The Evening Sun regrets the error.

Joseph Laskowski is not worried about the plan to lay off up to 200 employees in Howard County government. He says he does not believe the layoffs will result in inadequate police protection or drastic cuts in other services.

"A lot of organizations in the county have so many layers of bureaucratic management that they can cut," said Laskowski, who owns a home in the Kendall Ridge section of Columbia.

Laskowski he does not agree with a proposal to increase property taxes, however. "People feel enough is enough," he said while strolling through Centennial Park on a warm February afternoon with his wife, Barbara.

Lorraine Danaher worries that the Howard County budget crunch will hurt the public school system, even though she teaches her two children at their Oakland Mills home.

"I would rather pay a little more to keep the school system intact," she said.

County officials hope to find out whether more residents agree with Laskowski or Danaher during a public hearing scheduled for March 6 in County Council chambers. Testimony will be sought on budget proposals from county departments, which have been told to trim their costs by 16 percent for the next fiscal year.

A cloud has settled over Howard County government as Executive Charles I. Ecker has proposed laying off 200 employees and raising taxes to balance a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. One of the state's more prosperous suburbs -- "more recession-proof than any county in Maryland," one councilman says -- finds itself scraping for money. The county's budget shortfall has worsened steadily over the past six months.

Faces grew long Friday at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, where many of the 1,700 county employees work, when employees received a letter from Ecker in their paycheck envelopes saying anyone being laid off would be notified by April 19.

"The mood is very sad," one employee said while holding the letter. She did not want to be identified. "I think it's all been up in the air, but with this, this is reality."

She expressed anger that the county has filled three high-level positions -- public information officer, a second administrative assistant and economic development administrator -- in recent weeks while contemplating layoffs. She was angry that two of those people and Ecker's first administrative assistant earn the highest pay allowed in the salary range for their jobs.

"You can justify those hires, but not to somebody who's losing their job," she said.

Ecker has insisted that he needed to fill those positions and said he has made cuts in other areas of his office to reduce spending by 20 percent.

"There are certain jobs you have to do," he said.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, who says he probably will not vote for any tax increase, has criticized Ecker's decision to talk vaguely about layoffs two months before they will happen.

"Everybody's stressed out over here," he said. "Anxiety runs all over the place. I think in that atmosphere, people become less productive."

Gray blamed revenue shortfalls on the nationwide recession, but he said the county's controversial growth cap of 1989-90 is partly responsible because it hampered the economy and cut revenue from development.

GOP members lay the blame squarely on growth controls that former Democratic County Executive Elizabeth Bobo imposed. They contend that Ecker, a Republican, has to work through a problem that he inherited.

"Howard County was more recession-proof than any county in Maryland. This just should not have happened. [Bobo] made the mistake of cutting growth too fast and the banks were afraid of us," said Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th.

Feaga said he probably would support Ecker if the executive seeks a property tax increase of "10 to 14 percent" on the current rate of $2.45 on each $100 of assessed value -- about 25 to 35 cents -- but Ecker said he has not decided how much of an increase he will need.

Howard County's budget grew 88 percent in four years under Bobo and the government ended last year with a surplus of nearly $25 million. But revenues have fallen so sharply that the surplus was used to try to balance the current budget, and still fell $18 million to $20 million short. Other cuts are being made to help balance the budget.

There will be no surplus in next year's budget, and officials project revenues will be $13 million less than the $275 million that Ecker's spending affordability committee says is needed to run a stream-lined government.

The cuts are being imposed to reduce the expense of government from $113 million to $95 million. In addition, the county is looking to give the public school system $145.7 million, Howard Community College wants $7.6 million, and the county has to pay $27 million this year in debt service.

Ecker has told employees they would not receive raises next year. The former school administrator also says he wants school teachers to forfeit 6 percent raises. He plans to release budget-cutting proposals from department heads tomorrow.

County Administrator Buddy Roogow said he has left eight positions in his office unfilled but will have to lay off some of his 132 employees to reach a 16 percent reduction. He said residents will notice some decline in services but said the county will not compromise health and public safety.

"We've still got to remove snow off the road," he said. "It may determine whether we'll be there before the storm begins. Certainly the response times will be impacted."

Maj. James Robey, the acting police chief, has said he would have to lay off civilians and some of his 300 officers.

Finance Director Raymond F. Servary said the cuts will force him to lay off nine of his 58 employees and that it would result in slower service. But he promised that his office would send out tax bills on time.

Ecker said he now is worried that the state is going to reduce its contribution to the county to balance a deteriorating budget of its own.

Said the freshman executive, "The budget situation gets worse every day."

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