Council vows to preserve social programs, jobs in budget

THE BALTIMORE SUN

County Executive Robert R. Neall's cry for a smaller government is drowning in a chorus of desperate voices.

Battered wives seeking shelter, veteran workers scared of being put on the street, court masters beleaguered by too many juvenile cases -- all took their place before the County Council last week, begging to be spared the slash of Neall's budget scalpel.

By the end of the week, council members were promising to persuade Neall to restore money for certain social programs and the jobs of up to 88 county workers in his $634 million operating budget.

Philosophically, council members agree that government no longer can be all things to all people. But they differ markedly on the practical issue of which people must be left out in the cold, and when.

"A lot of people like the idea of downsizing, but this package just wasn't presented right by the administration," said Councilwoman Virginia P. Clagett, a West River Democrat. "I didn't think it was done fairly at all.

"It's too much," she said. "It isn't necessary. In the long term, downsizing is something government has got to address, but we are flush in this county compared to our neighbors. We are very lucky, and I don't think we should [lay off] our employees so they're lining the streets."

A majority of the seven council members say they are upset primarily by four issues:

* The elimination of the Careers Center in Crownsville, which provides training and education for about 100 juvenile delinquents a year. Discontinuing the center would save $330,000.

"I want you to know that if the county doesn't fund this program, nobody else will. These children will fall through the cracks," Erica Joyce Wolfe told the council last week. "If we don't pay for it now, we will pay for it later.

* Cutting $45,890 from the YWCA Woman's Center's battered spouse counseling and shelter program. The cut represents 16 percent of a $294,000 budget for a program that provided counseling to 413 people and shelter for 318 women and children during a recent 12-month period.

Neall also cut $30,000 for battered spouse legal services.

In last week's emotional testimony, battered wives sobbed as they told council members how the program helped them.

"You're cutting people and families who are rebuilding their lives," said one of the women. "You're taking away the only life jacket they may get."

* The layoff of at least 38 workers whose jobs are being abolished. Neall has eliminated 88 county jobs, but 40 workers could have their positions transferred to the private sector.

* School funding. Neall proposed a school budget of $347.9 million, $14.3 million more than last year. Still, school supporters complain that the proposed budget is $17.9 million less than what the Board of Education requested. At two public hearings last week, about 350 parents requested full funding of the school budget.

Council members, who must approve a budget by May 29, may add to the school budget, but not to any other department. If they want to restore the 88 jobs and money for the Careers Center and battered women, they must either exert pressure on Neall to include them through the supplemental budget process, or hope he's heard enough public comment to restore them on his own.

"I'm perfectly willing to listen to anything they propose," Neall said Friday.

He said he already is reconsidering restoring at least part of the money for the battered spouse program, after meeting with YWCA representatives last week and receiving a petition signed by 2,000 supporters of the program.

This week, Neall is scheduled to discuss funding for the Careers Center with Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. and juvenile court masters. Though he still believes juvenile justice falls under state auspices, he said he is considering saving the center.

L Neall says he will not renege on other budget cuts, however.

The elimination of the $30,850 executive director for the Anne Arundel Commission for Women is a "good cut" that could end up being used to restore funding for the battered women's program to its former level, Neall said.

He also remains firm on his decision to eliminate the 88 jobs. And his top priority -- a $10 million "rainy day fund" -- is "chiseled in stone."

Clearly, the council is going to have to be "a little more innovative" than simply raiding the rainy day fund in negotiating with Neall to restore the cuts, said County Auditor Joseph Novotny.

Neall desperately wants the fund as insurance against the kind of fiscal crisis he faced last year. Most council members support the concept of a savings account -- if not the $10 million amount -- but even those who don't say they are eyeing a number of Neall's pet capital projects more than the rainy day fund.

"This is clearly a philosophical decision between social issues and bricks and mortar," said Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Democrat. "Do we continue with capital projects and reduce our emphasis on helping people? I think that's what we're going to get down to during this final two weeks of the budget process."

Probably the most unpopular projects in the $96.4 million capital plan are a 200-bed expansion to the county detention center and long-range plans for an $80 million jail in Glen Burnie.

Council Chairman David G. Boschert, a Crownsville Democrat, promised to take a "long look" at both the operating and capital budgets to find savings that could be used to restore some of Neall's cuts.

"We're saying, 'Lay off a lot of people in the rank and file,' but there are all kinds of new positions coming in in his administration," he said, pointing specifically to a request for a $75,000 assistant to Chief Administrative Officer Dennis Parkinson, Neall's aide.

"You're going to have to do a lot of convincing to convince me that we can't handle our problems without [laying people off,]" said Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, an Annapolis Democrat. "If we have new people, we shouldn't be laying people off. I'm interested in attrition first."

Neall counters that he eliminated jobs on the recommendation of his department heads and has a responsibility to prune government wherever possible.

"It doesn't make sense to force someone to do the job with more people than he needs," he said.

In suggesting that money for the Careers Center and battered spouses be cut, Neall said he was testing the waters to see whether these programs are truly needed.

"And I'm going to be doing a lot more testing and probing in the next 2 1/2 years," he promised.

Though Neall says his budget decisions are governed by the philosophy that government needs to smaller, some council members are skeptical.

"I don't think government got any smaller with this budget," said Middlebrooks. "If you were really downsizing, he should have cut across the board. These clearly are little token programs. We sit there and knock out the Careers Center, but we hire a drug czar. Go figure."

Novotny said he's still reviewing the budget for possible cuts. "It's tough stuff, because the budget's lean. He's cut everything out."

Still, he said, "I do indeed see things there [that can be cut]. I see some things that obviously are more near and dear to Bob Neall than battered spouses."

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