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Council struggling with low-fat budget $270 million operating plan tough to trim


County Council members looked hard, but could find little to cut yesterday from the administration's $270 million proposed operating budget.

Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, wanted to whittle $59,934.42 by getting rid of the public relations officer, something she has been attempting to do for years.

It is not the person, but the position she wants to abolish, Pendergrass said at a work session dealing with two-thirds of the operating budget requests.

Pendergrass said she wants to put the county's public information arm under the direction of the county administrator and put the county's cable TV function under the cable administrator.

While no one supported the attempt to abolish the top public relations post, C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, did endorse the idea of putting the county government's cable channel operations under the direction of the cable administrator.

Gray said he thinks the council passed a resolution to that effect a couple of years ago, and asked the council executive secretary to research the issue.

Pendergrass said she was shocked at the amount of money the county spends on its computer maintenance programs -- $62,000 a year for one program alone. She called on the county auditor to investigate the situation and see whether the county could get by for less.

Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks told Pendergrass the county's software, unlike that bought for home use, is so highly specialized that an expensive service contract with the manufacturer is the only way to assure quality performance.

"There must be competing systems," Pendergrass said.

"Unfortunately, there are not," Wacks replied.

Pendergrass also had problems with the way the administration wants to fund the fire administrator's office. She said volunteer companies were expecting to lower their fire taxes this year, but County Executive Charles I. Ecker kept them at the same rate.

She said Ecker was using the difference between the current fire tax level and a reduced level to raise $900,000 for the fire administrator's office.

The problem is not so much what was done, as how it was done, Pendergrass said. "I envisioned a group of people [from government, the fire companies and the community] sitting down and talking," she said. "To see it in the budget is a surprise to me."

"It's a surprise to me as well," said council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th. "I'm disappointed [Ecker] wasn't talking to the community as well. I don't have a problem with the concept, I have a problem with the process."

Two department heads told council members they have holes in their proposed budgets that may need attention before the end of the next fiscal year.

Police Chief James N. Robey said the department's photo processing lab may break down any day. It would be cheaper to replace it for between $10,000 and $12,000 than to repair it, he said.

Corrections Chief James N. Rollins warned the council "there's going to be some exorbitant costs associated with AIDS," and to expect a huge increase in inmate medical expenses. The detention center received a $20,000 bill for an AIDS patient as recently as Monday, Rollins said.

Rollins said he will be looking in fiscal 1994 to fund an inmate program for alcoholics.

"Ninety percent of the inmates who come into the program have a substance-abuse problem," he said.

The night before the work session, the council heard four hours of testimony from advocates for Howard Community College and various social and civic organizations. All said they were enduring hardships, and all but one urged the council to continue the level of funding that Ecker has recommended for them for fiscal 1993.

With the exception of the education portion of the budget, the council can only accept or cut what the executive proposed.

Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of the county Community Action Council, said that while she understands the budget process, she is also sure that "where there's a will, there's a way." She called on the council to find a way to restore $6,300 vTC Ecker cut from her budget.

That cut, combined with other losses of revenue, is more than the agency can bear, Moore said.

"I'm not here to cry the blues of $6,300," she said. "You must do more to fully understand the dilemma facing . . . agencies servicing the poor."

"We'll try and see if we can't find that money," Farragut said.

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